Insight: Deadly GM ignition switches started with 2003 Saturn Ion

Fri Apr 11, 2014 2:41pm EDT
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By Paul Lienert and Marilyn Thompson

DETROIT/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The 2003 Saturn Ion was supposed to be a pivotal car for General Motors Co. Instead, it came to represent the compromises and corner cutting that almost destroyed GM and now find the company in a global recall of some of its most popular models.

The Ion debuted two years before the Chevy Cobalt, the model most associated with the current recall of 2.6 million vehicles, and it was the first car with the defective ignition switch linked to at least 13 deaths, when engines turned off, disabling airbags.

Priced from $12,000, it was the automaker's answer to the class-leading Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic, a small car that could finally be built at a profit to GM, which at the time was losing up to $2,000 on every compact it sold.

The all-new Ion was to be a standard bearer for GM's import-fighting Saturn brand, as well as the advance guard for a new family of compacts, code-named "Delta," that eventually would include the 2005 Cobalt.

Instead, the Ion, and the safety of its ignition switch, were compromised by GM's determination to cut its bloated costs, fractious relations with parts maker Delphi Automotive, and pressure to stick to a schedule, a close look at GM documents released to Congress and interviews with former GM executives show.

In many ways the problems with all of the cars affected by the recall are reflected in the Ion's troubled start.

Delphi alerted GM that the switch did not meet the automaker's standards by early 2002, the parts maker told Congress. The switch cost less than $1 to produce.

But changing it just before the start of production would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in factory retooling and caused an expensive and embarrassing delay in the Ion's introduction, former GM officials told Reuters.   Continued...

Members of the press look over the new 2003 Saturn ION quad coup at its debut at the New York International Auto Show in New York on March 27, 2002. REUTERS/Peter Morgan