September 16, 2009
REHOBOTH, MA – As Enterprise Rent-A-Car and General Motors scramble to correct the false advertising that claimed former fleet vehicles being sold used were equipped with “standard” side curtain airbags, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has agreed to correct the information on its consumer website.
Over a three-year period, GM had offered fleet buyers as a cost savings the option of deleting the standard side airbags in 2006-2008 Chevrolet Impalas and MY 2008-2009 Chevrolet Cobalt and Buick LaCrosse models. Last month, investigations by SRS and the Kansas City Star revealed that the troubled automaker and Enterprise, its biggest fleet customer and the nation’s largest used car seller, were re-selling these altered fleet vehicles – mostly the Impalas – to retail consumers and advertised them as having the important safety feature.
After the story received national attention, Enterprise, which ordered 66,000 Impalas without the standard side air bag, offered to buy back 750 of them sold under false pretenses for $750 over the Kelly Blue Book value. GM offered a desultory defense of the practice, saying that it did not violate NHTSA’s minimum standards for side impact protection and that the discount was an important selling point for its fleet customers.
NHTSA, however, has taken the matter more seriously. On September 2, SRS president Sean Kane wrote to NHTSA Acting Administrator Ronald Medford asking the agency to amend its side-impact NCAP information for the affected models. Medford responded two days later, with a thank-you note to Kane and a commitment to quick action.
“In light of this information, the agency reviewed side airbag data provided by GM for the models in question and found the information provided is misleading,” Medford wrote. “Accordingly, the agency has revised the safercar.gov website to indicate that side curtain airbags are optional equipment for Model Years (MY) 2006-2008 Chevrolet Impalas and MY 2008-2009 Chevrolet Cobalt and Buick LaCrosse models. The agency also amended the crash test ratings information to reflect that the models tested for side impact crash protection were equipped with the optional side curtain airbags.”
Further, Medford said, beginning with MY 2011, the agency would request that vehicle manufacturers specifically state whether fleet models have different safety equipment from those models sold at dealerships and any differences will be noted in the ratings information provided.
The Impala, for example, won a five-star side-impact crash rating for the front driver’s seat and the four-star rating for the rear were earned with the aid of the side curtain air bag. The vehicle would have likely received a lower rating without it.
“NHTSA clearly recognized that this is an important issue to consumers – and not just in this immediate instance with GM vehicles,” Kane said. “By taking the extra step and requesting manufacturers disclose differences in fleet safety equipment, the agency is sending a clear signal that it won’t be party to the obfuscation of what is really ‘standard.’”
Kane also wrote to GM CEO Fritz Henderson in early September, suggesting that GM ought to be an active participant in undoing the damage. While GM did remove the erroneous information from its Certified GM website, many GM dealers continued to advertise the Impalas as having the standard feature. Kane asked GM to re-brand the altered vehicles “to alert all future purchasers and dealers that this safety equipment was not included.” SRS’s request also called on GM to immediately “change its advertising and marketing materials to reflect that the feature is not standard, and that you alert all dealers and car buyer’s guide organizations of this anomaly on the 2006 through 2008 Impala, 2008 through 2009 Cobalt and any other vehicles that GM has marketed with “standard” side curtain airbags that were offered to fleet buyers without the feature.”
GM replied the following day, denying that the status of safety feature was ever hidden from buyers:
“When modifications or deletes are made to a GM vehicle for fleet purchase, the deleted equipment is clearly marked on the original window sticker as well as on the invoice. In GM-sponsored closed auctions, the content of each GM vehicle is fully disclosed,” said Brian Latouf, GM’s Director Global Structure & Safety Integration Center in a letter to SRS.
Otherwise, Latouf said, the information on how to tell if the vehicle actually contained the standard side airbag was tucked away in the owner’s manual. In the case of auctions outside of GM’s control, buyer beware, he added.
In addition, GM said that it had taken steps to prevent further misunderstandings, including: modifying its GM Certified website so that when a dealer printed the window sticker, the side airbag feature would no longer be automatically listed; contacted internet seller sites, such as AutoTrader.com, to inform them about the deletion for fleet vehicles; asked eBay to change its advertisements for all certified GM used vehicles. The manufacturer also asked dealers with GM certified used vehicles and third party providers to correct their window stickers for the affected vehicles.
SRS estimates that approximately 200,000 fleet vehicles have the deleted side curtain airbags despite GM’s assertion that the feature was standard.