Mazda Motor Corp. is recalling more than 300,000 Mazda3 and Mazda5 vehicles in North America to repair problems with the power-steering system that could lead to crashes, a problem the automaker dealt with in Japan a year ago.
The Japanese automaker told the government the recall involved model year 2007-2009 Mazda3 and Mazda5 vehicles built from April 2007 through November 2008. The recall involves 215,000 vehicles in the United States and an additional 100,000 vehicles in Canada and Mexico.
Mazda said the vehicles could have a sudden loss of power-steering assist, making it difficult for the driver to steer the vehicle and increase the risk of a crash. The company said it has not received any reports of crashes or injuries that resulted from the problem.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened an investigation on June 28 into steering problems in 2007-2009 Mazda3s, citing 33 complaints alleging steering problems, including three crashes.
Mazda started fixing vehicles in Japan for the same problem last year and has investigated the issue for two years.
In a letter to NHTSA last week, Mazda said it was first informed of similar steering problems in Japan in March 2008. After receiving additional reports, the company began its own probe in July 2008.
By the summer of 2009, Mazda said it found that the problem was caused by rust forming inside the high-pressure pipe in the power steering system. Rust particles could enter the power steering pump and cause it to go into a fail safe mode and shut down to avoid overheating.
Mazda conducted an "improvement campaign" last summer to repair vehicles in Japan "due to a high occurrence rate of this problem," according to the letter to NHTSA. But the company did not issue a recall in North America. Instead it issued a technical service bulletin to dealers since the "occurrence rate was low." The service bulletin included repair procedures for customers who reported the steering problems.
Mazda told NHTSA in the letter that in the spring of 2010, "we realized the occurrence rate was increasing in the North American market and then we began to study further field action for the market."
NHTSA opened its preliminary investigation in June. Most of the 33 complaints alleged loss of power steering assist while driving, making it difficult for the driver to maintain control of the vehicle.
Mazda told NHTSA that it "recognizes that there is no unreasonable safety risk" but it decided to conduct a voluntary recall "since we do not want any delay for field action on this issue."
Automakers are required to inform NHTSA within five days of learning that a safety defect exists in one of their vehicles.
NHTSA fined Toyota Motor Corp. $16.4 million this year for waiting more than four months to recall 2.3 million vehicles with sticking gas pedals. The safety agency is investigating why Toyota waited nearly a year in 2005 to recall trucks and SUVs in the United States with defective steering rods, despite issuing a similar recall in Japan.
Transportation Department spokeswoman Olivia Alair said NHTSA was "currently reviewing the recall documents submitted by Mazda and will look at whether any additional action is necessary."
Mazda said in a statement that it would notify owners during the next few months of the recall and dealers will replace the power steering pump and two high-pressure lines at no charge. "Be assured that our customers remain Mazda's highest priority. They remain safe in their Mazda3s and Mazda5s," the company said.