An Unsafe Vehicle and Unhappy with GM

Updated 10/22/10, 3:30 PM.  See bottom of post for updates.

For at least the past two years, my wife and I have been risking our lives. Every time one of us sat in the driver’s seat of our 2006 Saturn Relay, we trusted our seat belt.  It’s a trust that’s been shattered.  Unfortunately, General Motors isn’t doing much to rebuild our confidence in their product.

On Monday, Oct. 11th, my wife was traveling in the minivan with her sister and our two boys to an orchard for a day of apple picking.  While driving, she heard a “click” and felt her seat belt loosen.  Initially, she thought it had come unlatched.  Instead, she was stunned to find the entire anchor plate had popped out from under her seat.  She went from feeling securely protected by airbags and a taut seat belt to feeling intense unease.

Why was she so concerned?  You see, my wife and I were in a nasty car accident during the summer of 2006.  The accident broke her back, which fortunately healed well.  I was bruised and in shock.  Our first son, then an infant, was thoroughly protected in his car seat.  Ultimately, our 2004 Saturn VUE was totaled.  But it saved our lives.  Functional seat belts certainly did, too.

This car saved our lives.

When it came time to purchase a new vehicle, we bought our Relay.  It had improved protection:  side impact airbags, reduced-force front airbags, and electronic stability control.  We bought it primarily for its safety features.  I thought I had done enough research.  I thought I could rely on the Saturn brand.  I invested in the vehicle because I was a loyal Saturn owner.  For example, I still drive a 1996 Saturn SL2.  It’s still going strong with 192,000 miles on the odometer.

The Saturn Relay was the most expensive vehicle I had ever purchased.  It became my worst investment.

Since then we’ve had numerous problems.  After reading a number of posts on Edmunds.com, I gather that other Relay owners have shared my experiences.  Incidentally, the Relay is the same vehicle sold as a Chevrolet Uplander, a Buick Terraza or a Pontiac Montana SV6.  Here’s my list of complaints:

  • Our Relay was in the shop three times to fix a leak that caused a wiring connector to short out.  That, in turn, caused the vehicle to stall periodically.
  • There have been numerous electrical annoyances including flickering headlights and warning messages that appear/disappear at random.
  • The automatic sliding doors periodically refuse to close.  On occasion they close, but a warning message and chime indicate the door is not secure after we start driving.
  • A couple months ago I was using the cruise control, and the vehicle started to rev oddly.  It automatically kicked the vehicle out of cruise control.

But nothing was more egregious than last week’s seat belt problem. Fortunately, my brother-in-law was available to help my wife.  He diagnosed the problem, took some pictures, and bolted the seat belt bracket into its proper place.

The infamous unsecured bracket. (H. Drews photo, used with permission.)

It appears that the the seat belt anchor bracket and seat itself share a bolt. In this case, the bolt was not threaded through the anchor bracket, only through the seat bracket.  The only thing securing the seat belt was the force of the seat weighing down on the anchor bracket.

This seat bracket should have held the seat belt anchor bracket in place via the bolt in the center. (H. Drews photo, used with permission.)

My guess is that in a serious accident, perhaps even in a minor one, the anchor bracket would have worked loose.  I can just envision it whipping around the passenger cabin.  I don’t want to think about what would happen to the driver without the protection of a seat belt.

How did it happen?  Our best guess is that the driver’s seat was removed when Saturn of Albany, my local dealership, was repairing the leak (mentioned above) in 2008.  I can remember being told that they removed one of the seats in the second row in order to pull up the carpet and find the leak.  I cannot recall being told that the driver’s seat was removed. However, based on the wear marks on the seat belt bracket, it appears that the bracket was properly bolted at one point in time.  Additionally, there is a plastic “boot” that is missing.  That’s only apparent after looking at the seat belt on the passenger side.

Closeup of the seat belt anchor bracket. Note the wear marks around the bolt hole. (H. Drews photo, used with permission.)

Note the plastic "sleeve" or "boot" covering the bottom of the seat belt on the passenger's side.

Note that the "sleeve" or "boot" is missing from the bottom of the seat belt on the driver's side.

Since Saturn of Albany no longer exists, my next step was to call GM customer service.  I did so last Thursday (Oct. 14th), and they expressed the requisite concern that it was a serious situation.  When I asked what could be done to rebuild my trust, the answer was to take the vehicle to a nearby GM dealership for a safety inspection.

When it came to the issue of cost, I was told that there would be a diagnostic fee, probably in the neighborhood of $100.  If further safety problems were found, GM customer service said they might be able to work out some cost reductions.  I was reminded that the Relay is out of warranty.  Never mind the fact that the vehicle was under warranty when the seat belt was installed incorrectly.  I did ask to speak with a supervisor. I spoke to a second individual, supposedly a supervisor, but the answer remained the same.  The supervisor told me that he could not kick my complaint up another level.  Wow!  That’s customer service, huh?

I guess that GM isn’t all that concerned that my vehicle might not be safe.

But I’m not content to leave it there.  It’s a critical issue.  Not a mere annoyance like some of the electrical problems in the vehicle.  My intention was to write a letter to the corporation.  I still plan to.  I also posted some Facebook messages.  I tweeted about it:  here and here.  But I had no intention to blog about it until later.

No intention, that was, until I heard Friday’s news (Oct. 15th).  GM is recalling over 300,000 Chevrolet Impalas.  Why, you might ask?  I’ll let GM’s press release do the talking:

General Motors is recalling 322.409 Chevrolet Impalas from the 2009 and 2010 model years to inspect for a small number of vehicles whose front seat belt webbing may not have been properly secured to the lap belt anchor pretensioner mounted to the side of the seat nearest the door.

Vehicles with this condition may have an anchor that can separate in a crash, and therefore may not meet the anchor strength requirements of the U.S. and Canadian Motor Vehicle Safety Standard that covers seat belt assembly anchorages.

Yup, seat belts that may have been improperly installed.  I’ll grant you, the problem is not identical.  But it is eerie.  In the Impala recall, customers do not have to pay for the inspection or repair.  Not the case for me.  Hence, this blog post.

GM customer service… do you want to change your response now?

It’s a good bet that I will not buy another GM product.  Let’s assume that I’ll buy a new car every seven years until I’m 65.  That’s a conservative estimate of four new cars.  Let’s assume my average vehicle purchase in the future to be $25,000, again fairly conservative.  GM is out $100,000 from me.  Is it too much to believe that this blog might influence others to avoid GM purchases?  Ya’ never know.  Does GM want to take that risk?

Any response GM?

10/19/10, 5:45 PM update: GM did respond, although they claim it has nothing to do with this blog or my social media posts.  The supervisor I spoke with last Thursday called me this evening.  He told me that my situation is being escalated to a “District Supervisor”  (Hopefully I got that term correct… I had a less than desirable connection on my cellphone.)  My understanding is that the District Supervisor oversees dealerships in a specific geographic region.  I expect to hear more in the next 24 hours. More updates to follow.

10/22/10, 3:30 PM update: I’ve been playing phone tag with a customer service rep at GM.  She first called on Oct. 20th, right as I was putting the kiddos down for their afternoon nap.  I thought she would call back later that afternoon as I requested, but I did not receive a call until the next morning.  Unfortunately, that call went to voicemail because I couldn’t answer my phone.  We’ve been trading voicemails since then.  Not that it has been easy.  If I key in the proper extension on my phone, the automated system hangs up on me.  Half the time, when I make use of the voice recognition system, it fails to connect me to the proper extension.  When I do get through, I only get the rep’s voicemail.

Today’s voicemail from the GM customer service rep included the following statement:

Still the resolution is that we won’t be able to provide assistance on the diagnostic fee.  You know, once the warranty expires [the] customer needs to be responsible.  Still you can call me back, but the resolution will remain the same.  Well, thank you for your time and interest in GM.  You have a nice day. Bye.

So, is this the supposed escalation of my complaint?  I have no idea.  I especially love the comment about it being my responsibility.  Uh, yeah. It’s the responsibility of the now defunct dealership in particular, and GM in general, if they can’t install a blasted seat belt anchor properly.

I still hope to chat with someone at GM, but I think this is going nowhere.

Tomorrow I’ll be taking the vehicle to my mechanic to do a thorough check of the seats and seat belts.  I’d rather pay him.  Then, I think, I’ll send a copy of the bill to GM.  After that, it’s on to the media.

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3 Comments

  1. This is really a shame. I used to think that Saturn prided themselves on safety and customer satisfaction. I am really disappointed. I had a Saturn sedan for many years. This post has caused me to really think if I would buy another in the future. I want to feel safe in the car I am driving, but I also want to feel good about the company I am investing in. Great post Wade. Follow up with another blog to let us know if GM responded. I’d be interested in knowing either way.

    Reply
    • Alicia, you’re right. When Saturn had its independence from the rest of GM, I believe they produced a superior product. Once they became just another part of GM, the product definitely suffered.

      I wish that GM could have completed the sale of Saturn to somebody else. It’s unfortunate that they let the brand die.

      I’ll definitely be keeping folks up-to-date.

      Reply
  1. A Better Day to Forget | This Ordinary Citizen

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