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Detroit - For years, the U.S. government's auto safety watchdog sent form letters to worried owners of the Chevrolet Cobalt and other General Motors small cars, saying it didn't have enough information about problems with unexpected stalling to establish a trend or open an investigation.
The data tell a different story.
An Associated Press review of complaints to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that over a nine-year period, 164 drivers reported that their 2005-2007 Chevrolet Cobalts stalled without warning. That was far more than any of the car's competitors from the same model years, except for the Toyota Corolla, which was recalled after a government investigation in 2010.
Stalling was one sign of the ignition switch failure that led GM last month to recall 1.6 million Cobalts and other compact cars, including the Saturn Ion, Pontiac G5 and Chevrolet HHR. GM has linked the problem to at least 12 deaths and dozens of crashes. The company says the switch can slip out of the "run" position, which causes the car to stall, knocks out the power steering and disables the air bags.
GM has recently acknowledged it knew the switch was defective at least a decade ago, and the government started receiving complaints about the 2005 Cobalt just months after it went on sale. House and Senate subcommittees have called the current heads of the automaker and NHTSA to testify on April 1-2 about why it took so long for owners to be told there was a potentially deadly defect in their cars.
Although the overall number of complaints represents only 0.02 percent of the nearly 625,000 Cobalts sold from 2005-2007 in the U.S., experts familiar with NHTSA say they were enough to warrant an investigation and recall. The Cobalt had about the same rate of complaints as the Corolla. And the agency knew of at least two fatalities in Cobalt crashes that involved a sudden stall when it first declined to investigate the cars in 2007.
WHAT HAPPENED: General Motors recalled 1.6 million small cars for defective ignition switches that can cause the cars to stall without warning. GM links 12 deaths to the defect.
GOVERNMENT'S ROLE: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration never opened an investigation, which could have prompted an earlier recall of the Chevrolet Cobalt and other small cars. It said it couldn't establish a trend. But a review by The Associated Press shows more stalling complaints for the Cobalt than for most other small cars.
WHAT'S NEXT: The heads of GM and NHTSA testify before House and Senate subcommittees next week.