Megan Gaedje has been driving her silver 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt for two months since General Motors, the car’s manufacturer, issued a recall for Cobalts because of a faulty ignition switch that can shift to the “off” position while the car is running.
The 26-year-old Portland resident uses the car to commute about four miles a day to her job as a receptionist at Port City Physical Therapy, and to drive to Connecticut once a month to visit her family. She’s anxious to get it fixed, but has been told that her dealer doesn’t have the proper parts yet.
Gaedje’s is one of more than 2 million General Motors cars that have been recalled since February for the faulty ignition switch, which GM has admitted to knowing about for a decade and has been linked to at least 13 deaths. The recall includes every model year for Cobalts, Saturn Ions and Pontiac G5s.
The recall and the way GM handled it has brought congressional scrutiny and probes by the Department of Justice and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It also has caused confusion and anxiety for car owners like Gaedje, who was told by an employee at Pape Chevrolet in South Portland that her car was not included in the recall, before getting a letter from GM telling her that it was.
Even auto dealers in Maine that do understand the scope of the recall have told car owners to call back later because replacement parts for the faulty switches aren’t yet available.
Until GM ships the parts, Gaedje said, she will keep driving her Cobalt – although a little slower than usual – because it’s her only vehicle.
Though she first heard about the recall in February, Gaedje didn’t get the letter from GM until two weeks ago. She didn’t keep it, but one sentence stayed with her: “If the ignition switch is not in the run position, the air bags may not deploy if the vehicle is involved in a crash, increasing the risk of injury or fatality.”
“Those two words shouldn’t be in a sentence” about her car, Gaedje said. “It didn’t give me a great feeling. I was pretty shocked.”
RECALL IN STAGES
Much of the confusion has been created because GM announced the recall in stages. Its initial recall, on Feb. 13, included 2005-07 Cobalt models. In late March, the company expanded the recall to include 2008-10 Cobalts, saying there was a chance that faulty ignition switches could have been used to repair the later models. GM no longer produces Cobalts.
It’s not only car owners who are having problems getting information. Chris Moore, service manager at Goodwin Chevrolet in Brunswick, was surprised to learn Thursday that GM had extended the recall to include Cobalt models from 2008 to 2010. The automaker hadn’t notified him.
“It’s a constantly evolving thing,” Moore said. “Wouldn’t surprise me at all if I get something later that says it’s expanded. They just haven’t given that to me yet.”
Nicole Martell, 23, of Limington, who uses her red 2008 Cobalt to commute to her job at the Walmart in Scarborough, called her dealer, Quirk Chevrolet in Portland, in early March after learning about the recall from her father. She asked whether her car was included in the recall, and an employee at Quirk Chevrolet told her the dealership didn’t have enough information and she should call back in a month.
“I’m not exactly happy about this, but there’s nothing I can do,” Martell said.
Quirk Chevrolet and Pape Chevrolet did not respond to several requests for comment on the recall.
Martell is still driving her car. Her mother suggested that she park it until the recall is handled and borrow one of her father’s Chevy pickup trucks, but she doesn’t want to be responsible for filling a “gas guzzler.”
“I told her, ‘No way!’ I have every right to drive my car,” Martell said Wednesday while standing beside her Cobalt in the Maine Mall parking lot. “If I get in an accident, (GM) is going to have to pay for it.”
There are 4,775 Cobalts registered in Maine, including 148 in Portland, according to the Maine Bureau of Motor Vehicles. Mainers also own several thousand of the other cars that have been recalled, including 1,740 Saturn Ions.
The Maine Attorney General’s Office has received eight complaints from Cobalt owners and 10 from Saturn Ion owners under the state’s “lemon law.” Those are only a small fraction of the 1,824 complaints the office received from 2003 to 2013, according to its data.
The Attorney General’s Office would not release details about the complaints, citing a state law that restricts the release of confidential information gathered during investigations.
GM has yet to send auto dealers new ignition switches. Jim Cain, a GM spokesman, said the first parts will be available for repairs Monday, but the company doesn’t expect to have all of the recalled vehicles repaired until late fall.
“We have two assembly lines going and are trying to add a third,” Cain said. “We expect to produce a million switches by the end of August.”
In the meantime, GM is recommending that owners of Cobalts and other recalled models remove extra keys and the key fobs from their key chains because extra weight or a “jarring event” could exacerbate the ignition-switch problem.
“That’s kind of scary because there are a lot of potholes in Maine,” said Gaedje, the Cobalt owner in Portland.
BUY ANOTHER CHEVY?
Ben Redlon, 34, of Buxton drives his gray 2008 Cobalt at least 100 miles a day, commuting to Brunswick. He learned about the recall in February but has been unsure whether his car is included. He hasn’t called a dealer yet.
“It does concern me, but there’s not much I can do,” said Redlon, who owned two Chevy Cavaliers before buying his Cobalt new in April 2008. “I have to drive my car. I don’t have much choice. It’s the only vehicle I have.”
At Goodwin Chevrolet, Moore said he is getting many calls from owners who want to know whether their cars have been recalled. Despite the confusion over the models that have been recalled, Moore can run a vehicle identification number through the system to determine whether a car is on the list.
Moore said he expects to receive new ignition switches within the next week and will start scheduling repairs. He said he “doesn’t have a clue” how many repairs he will do.
“It’s hard to tell because a lot of people have never been to the dealer,” he said, “but they’ll bring it in because it’s close.”
Before the recall, he said, he never had a Cobalt owner bring in a car with concerns about a malfunctioning ignition switch. The recall was “just as much a surprise for me,” he said.
Whether the recall and its fallout will affect GM’s car sales has yet to be determined. Gaedje, Martell and Redlon were split on whether they would buy another Chevy. While Gaedje and Redlon said they wouldn’t, Martell said she remains a devoted Chevy customer because buying American-made cars is very important to her.
Like Redlon, Martell owned two Chevy Cavaliers before her Cobalt and said she has never had a problem.
“I’ll buy another Chevy,” Martell said. “I’m very happy with Chevy vehicles. But their customer service sucks right now.”
Whit Richardson can be contacted at 791-6463 or at: