Auto makers selling in the U.S. issued 72 recall campaigns affecting some 4.6 million light vehicles in first-half 2012, putting the industry on track to skirt the whopping 14.7 million units it brought back in full-year 2011.

A WardsAuto analysis of National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. data shows that while preliminary estimations reflect quality and reliability improvements, bugs with newly launched vehicles continue to pester auto makers as much as problems with decades-old cars and trucks still plying roadways.

The industry has been experiencing historically high recall numbers in the past three years. In 2010, auto makers conducted 136 recall campaigns affecting upwards of 17.2 million LVs and in 2009, 105 campaigns captured some 18.4 million units.

“Recall numbers in the last few years have been phenomenally high,” says Jack Gillis, director of public affairs at the Consumer Federation of America, a Washington-based consumer watchdog group and author of the annual The Car Book buying guide.

“The good news is (the numbers) show a problem has been identified and it can be fixed,” he tells WardsAuto in an interview. “Auto makers also are less afraid of recalls and, no question, cars are better built today than ever before, but they also are exceedingly more complex so more can go wrong.”

Newer, however, does not always mean better.

General Motors, for example, conducted a pair of recalls bringing back 466,387 of its ’11-’12 Chevrolet Cruze small sedans. The bigger callback targets a potential oil leak that could lead to a vehicle fire, while nearly 60,000 other Cruzes may not include important fuel-tank welds that in a crash could lead to a leak and a fire.

These are not the first Cruze recalls. Last year, three campaigns brought back 231,319 units.

“Give GM credit, they’ve jumped on the Cruze recalls,” Gillis says. “Any other behavior would amplify the damage a recall can do to a brand.”

GM’s recalls of 530,399 vehicles over seven campaigns is the fifth-highest industry total over the year’s first six months.

As further evidence of faulty new-vehicle launches, Subaru recalled 326,012 of its Forester cross/utility vehicles from the ’09-’12 model years because a second-row seatbelt assembly might not permit proper installation of a child-restraint system.

Nissan brought back nearly 80,000 model-year ’11-’12 Juke and Infiniti QX CUVs and Infiniti M sedans for potentially loose fuel sensors that could lead to a fire.

Even luxury and niche auto makers did not escape post-launch bugs. Porsche recalled 20,278 of its’11-’12 Cayenne sedans for potentially loose headlamps. The headlamp could detach while driving.

Rolls Royce brought back 69 units of ’11 Ghosts because an auxiliary water pump could overheat and cause a fire, and Ferrari recalled 74 of its ’11-’12 Italia and California models because a potential crankshaft failure could leave the supercars inoperable.

Toyota led all auto makers in first-half recalls, issuing six campaigns capturing 848,450 vehicles.

A recall of its segment-best-selling Tacoma small pickup from model years ’05-’09 accounted for a lion’s share: 495,470 units. Over time, according to NHTSA, steering-wheel vibration on those Tacomas might have damaged a spring powering the driver-side airbag and in a crash the safety system may not deploy.

Honda conducted eight campaigns affecting upwards of 713,558 vehicles, with the biggest culprit being wear and tear to a wiring harness on its popular ’02-’04 CR-V CUVs that could lead to inoperable low-beam headlights.

Ford issued nine recalls affecting 661,266 cars and trucks. Its biggest campaign involves ’01-’02 Escape CUVs, where 244,530 units have been affected by a brake-fluid leak.

Chrysler filed eight recall petitions calling back 536,725 vehicles. The largest effort involved 346,900 ’04-’05 Jeep Liberty CUVs. Excessive corrosion in states treating roadways with salt in the winter months might fracture the rear control arm and cause the driver to lose control, the auto maker said.

The Detroit Three auto makers as group issued 24 recall campaigns in the year’s first six months affecting upwards of 1.72 million vehicles, while their key Japanese rivals filed 22 petitions capturing an estimated 1.74 million units. The major German auto makers issued 13 campaigns covering an estimated 509,754 cars and trucks.

jamend@wardsauto.com