Cars with the Highest and Lowest Recall Rates

By Thomas Lee

Recalls can represent dangerous safety issues and hours of potential inconvenience for car owners. A new study by automotive research firm iSeeCars.com determined which models have the highest and lowest recall rates and also found that recall rates can be indicative of a car’s quality, providing another valuable resource for consumer research.

iSeeCars.com collected the number of distinct vehicle recall campaigns from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) recall database as of May 1, 2018, for each model from model years 2013 - 2017. It then calculated an average recall rate (number of recall campaigns/year per 100,000 new car units sold) for each model. Finally, it compared these recall rates to Used Car Reliability ratings from Consumer Reports (CR), a trusted consumer-oriented non-profit organization.

Top 10 Cars with the Highest Recall Rates

Model Avg Recall Rate (Campaigns/Year Per 100k Units Sold) Compared to Overall Average Avg Reliability, Consumer Reports (out of 5)*
Mercedes-Benz C-Class 5.77 7.3x 3.0
GMC Sierra 3.25 4.1x 2.4
BMW 3/4 Series 2.95 3.7x 3.6
Dodge Durango 2.71 3.4x 2.0
Nissan Pathfinder 2.00 2.5x 2.4
Ram Pickup 1.99 2.5x 2.2
Toyota 4Runner 1.98 2.5x 5.0
Dodge Charger 1.74 2.2x N/A
Chrysler 300 1.71 2.2x N/A
Chevrolet Tahoe 1.52 1.9x 2.4
Avg Top 10 Highest 2.73 3.5x 3.0
Overall Average (across all vehicles) 0.79 -- 3.4

* Average Consumer Reports Reliability Ratings only included for models with ratings available in all five model years, 2013-2017.

 

Top 10 Cars with the Lowest Recall Rates

Model Avg Recall Rate (Campaigns/Year Per 100k Units Sold) Compared to Overall Average Avg Reliability, Consumer Reports (out of 5)*
Hyundai Accent 0.10 0.1x N/A
Chevrolet Equinox 0.11 0.1x 4.2
Toyota Corolla 0.12 0.1x 4.8
Honda Civic 0.14 0.2x 4.2
Honda CR-V 0.14 0.2x 4.6
Honda Accord 0.16 0.2x 5.0
Subaru Crosstrek 0.18 0.2x 4.0
Toyota Camry 0.23 0.3x 5.0
Hyundai Elantra 0.23 0.3x 4.2
GMC Terrain 0.26 0.3x 4.2
Avg Top 10 Lowest 0.16 0.2x 4.5
Overall Average (across all vehicles) 0.79 -- 3.4

* Average Consumer Reports Reliability Ratings only included for models with ratings available in all five model years, 2013-2017.

 

“A recall means hours of lost time on top of potential safety issues,” explained Phong Ly, iSeeCars.com CEO. “At the very least, it involves an appointment, a trip to the dealership, and waiting around while the repairs are being made or dealing with a loaner car if the dealership is even prepared to make the fix. Owners of cars with repeated recalls are faced with this hassle many times over.”

A majority of the cars with the highest recall rates (6 out of 10) come from domestic automakers, with a mix of four passenger cars, two trucks, and four SUVs. Most of the cars with the lowest recall rates (6 out of 10) come from Japanese brands, and the list includes a mix of passenger cars and SUVs.

The recall rate allows consumers to compare cars based on their history of recalls. For example, comparing two SUVs between the two lists, the Chevrolet Equinox and the Dodge Durango, the Durango has a history of more frequent recalls than the Equinox. Ly commented, “Durango owners have to go through the rigamarole of recall-related repairs more often than Equinox owners, in order to replace airbag control modules, brake calipers, alternators, or even radios that could allow 3rd party hackers access to the car’s control systems.”

The Mercedes-Benz C-Class is the car with the highest recall rate. It has been recalled for a host of safety issues, from several different recall campaigns involving airbags to multiple campaigns involving failure in the steering column. Ly noted, “Among the list of recalls is a campaign to fix the sunroof because it could have been improperly bonded to the car frame and stands the risk of falling on passengers. Luxury cars such as the Mercedes C-Class or the BMW 3-Series and 4-Series, which are third on the list, are packed with features, and each additional feature can be another point of failure. This could explain why C-Class owners have to contend with so many recall-related headaches.”

The GMC Sierra, second on the list after the C-Class, also has many more recall campaigns per year relative to the number of units sold. The Sierra was recalled for faulty seat belts, loss of power in steering, brake pedals becoming inoperative, and fuel tanks overfilling, among other issues. “Given that only about a quarter of all recalls are actually addressed, consumers who buy a used GMC Sierra may have to bring their truck to the dealership to deal with open recalls many more times than those who buy a Hyundai Accent or Chevrolet Equinox, which have the lowest recall rates,” commented Ly.

Recall Rates as Indicator of Car Quality

iSeeCars’ analysis revealed that recall rates are not just a metric of the frequency of a model’s recalls, but also an indicator of overall car quality. By comparing recall rates to Consumer Reports (CR)’s Used Car Reliability ratings, it found that models with high recall rates tend to have low reliability ratings, and models with low recall rates tend to have high reliability ratings. The Top 10 Cars with the Highest Recall Rates have an average recall rate of 2.73 recalls/year per 100,000 units sold and an average Consumer Reports reliability rating of 3.0, while the Top 10 Cars with the Lowest Recall Rates have an average recall rate of 0.16 recalls/year per 100,000 units sold and an average reliability rating of 4.5.

The correlation between recall rates and CR ratings can largely be explained by the main common factor: cars and the presence or absence of problems with them. Cars with substantial issues likely cause their owners enough frustration that they will seek out venues to complain to such as Consumer Reports. And if the cars' issues are problematic enough, recall campaigns could be issued.

The models on the list of Cars with the Highest Recall Rates tend to have low-to-middling reliability ratings. The Mercedes-Benz C-Class has a reliability rating of 3.0, which falls below the overall 3.4 average, and the GMC Sierra’s 2.4 is even lower. One particularly troublesome set of recalls for the Sierra involve the software for the airbag diagnostic module--this could unintentionally activate a diagnostic test during operation of the truck. The test prevents airbags from deployment, even in the case of an actual crash. A second round of recalls for the same problem was issued because of mistakes made during the first round. “The fact that this was necessary reflects poorly on the quality control process. It’s perhaps not that surprising that this truck has a low reliability rating,” said Ly.

One surprise on the list is the Toyota 4Runner, which has a 5.0 reliability rating. “Although there are many recall campaigns for the 4Runner, most are for relatively less severe issues such as improperly tightened roof racks, loose accessories, adhesive for the hood scoop, and incorrect weight labels and spare tire air pressure. These issues are less likely to interfere with basic car function, and fundamentally the car seems reliable,” explained Ly.

Almost all the models on the list of Cars with the Lowest Recall Rates have reliability ratings between four and five (out of five). The Hyundai Accent, the only model without a reliability rating and the model with the lowest recall rate, is well-regarded by many automotive review institutions such as U.S. World and News Report, Edmunds, and Kelley Blue Book. Six of the ten models are from Japanese brands, which have a reputation for solid, reliable cars. And the two domestic SUVs, the Chevrolet Equinox and GMC Terrain, have received JD Power dependability awards.

“Recalls issued for models with less frequent recall rates and high reliability ratings should still be taken seriously,” Ly cautioned. For example, both the Chevrolet Equinox and the Toyota Corolla are affected by the Takata airbag recalls, which were issued after fatality reports and have been widely expanded to many late-model vehicles.

Recall Rates as Research Tool

iSeeCars’ demonstration of an association between NHTSA recall rates and Consumer Reports’ Used Car Reliability ratings validates the use of NHTSA’s data in determining the quality of a given car. Despite the fact that CR’s ratings follow a different data collection process when compared to NHTSA’s recall process, low CR ratings are linked to high recall rates and vice versa. Consumers can use high recall rates as an indicator of low car quality and are encouraged to confirm whether a car of interest has any open recalls.

In addition to reviews and ratings from consumer-oriented organizations such as Consumer Reports, public databases such as NHTSA’s recall database are important research tools for the car-buying consumer. The publicly-available nature of this information serves as an advocate for the consumer because it stands as an open record of warnings for potential problems. And although some recalls may be considered minor or less severe, the information in question can be viewed and evaluated by everyone free of charge, empowering consumers to make their own judgments and decisions about the quality of cars.

Methodology

iSeeCars gathered recall data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA)/Office of Defect Investigation's (ODI) databases as of May 1, 2018. Recall rates were calculated as the number of vehicle recall campaigns for each model in the database from model years 2013-2017 divided by the age of the model and the model’s new unit sales.  Only models with at least 50,000 sales in each year from 2013-2017 were included in the analysis. Note that some models’ data were summed together due to sales figures availability only at an aggregated level, such as the GMC Sierra combining sales figures across the Sierra 1500, Sierra 2500, and Sierra 3500. This resulted in a set of 69 models with an overall average recall rate of 0.79 recalls/year per 100,000 new unit sales. The models’ recall rates were ranked and compared with the overall average.

These data were then compared to Consumer Reports' Used Car Reliability ratings for the models and model year range. Consumer Reports' (CR) ratings are made on a 5-point scale, and according to the publication, are based on annual surveys of their subscribers. The score indicates whether a car has had more or fewer reported problems in the past year than average. CR reliability ratings were averaged across model years--if a model did not have reliability ratings for all five model years, the average was excluded from further analysis.

Across models with both metrics (56 models), average recall rates were compared to average CR ratings. The association between these two metrics can be quantified by a common statistical measure called the correlation coefficient. Its magnitude varies between 1 and -1, where 1 implies a perfect positive relationship, i.e. when the value of one quantity is high, the value of the other quantity is also high. -1 implies a perfect negative relationship, where one value is high when the other is low. And 0 implies no relationship--values are randomly paired together. Results of the Spearman correlation indicated a statistically significant negative association between recall rate and CR rating (rs(54) = -0.48, p < 0.001). Jackknifed estimates for the correlation coefficient ranged between -0.45 and -0.53. Low CR ratings were associated with high recall rates while high CR ratings were associated with low recall rates. According to Cohen in his 1988 guide Statistical Power Analysis for the Behavioral Sciences, correlations between 0.3 and 0.5 are generally considered “moderate” to “large”.

About iSeeCars.com

iSeeCars.com is an automotive data and research company that helps consumers find the best car deals by providing key insights and guidance. It has saved users over $159 million by applying big data analytics powered by over 25 billion (and growing) data points and using proprietary algorithms to objectively analyze, score and rank millions of cars and thousands of dealers. Based in the Boston area, iSeeCars.com was founded by former TripAdvisor and SAP executives determined to improve the car shopping experience for consumers.

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