Supplier performance was mixed in 2001, despite an overall quality resurgence in the auto industry, suggests a comprehensive report on safety recalls.

While supplier gaffes are linked to fewer recall campaigns than the previous year, the number of potentially affected vehicles rose by more than 32%, according to a Ward's analysis of the 205-page report.

This occurred despite a 15.9% reduction in the total number of recall campaigns.

Compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin., the document is the agency’s annual report on recalls of motor vehicles and motor vehicle equipment. Delayed several months by NHTSA’s transition to an upgraded computer system, the report is headed for the printer. But Ward's has obtained an advance copy.

Including campaigns affecting medium- and heavy-duty trucks, buses, niche vehicles, motorcycles and trailers, NHTSA recorded 448 recalls in 2001. This compares favorably with 2000 when the count was 533.

The campaigns of 2001 had implications for 13.3 million vehicles, the lowest total since 1994 when 244 campaigns had the potential to affect just over 6 million vehicles. More importantly, the 2001 vehicle count is a whopping 45.3% lower than 2000’s total of 24.3 million.

Had suppliers kept pace, however, NHTSA’s 2001 retrospective would seem much rosier.

Recalls involving supplier slip-ups totaled 35, which compares favorably with 2000’s count of 53. But the number of potentially affected units – the vast majority of which were light vehicles – swelled to more than 4.9 million from 3.3 million.

Inflating 2001’s count are the year’s two most notorious recalls – a 1.3 million-unit campaign to inspect/replace a faulty seatbelt buckle, and a 1 million-unit campaign to address a wiper-motor-switch malfunction. Ford Motor Co. bore the brunt in both cases.

However, even when manufacturer miscues are considered, suppliers still wear the dunce caps.

The Ward's analysis of NHTSA’s report links 57 recall campaigns to OEM assembly errors and/or vehicle design flaws. But the number of vehicles implicated by these recalls is 3.5 million – 1.4 million less than the supplier total.

The overall decrease in recalls also is reflected in the totals for individual auto makers. As in 2000, the Big Three – whose production volumes were also greatest – were the poorest performers.

But each Detroit-based auto maker recorded significant gains. Including campaigns that involved medium- and heavy-duty vehicles, Ford and General Motors Corp. account for 28 and 26 recalls, respectively – down considerably from 2000 when their counts were 60 and 52.

Similarly, the numbers of affected vehicles were in decline. At Ford, the difference is greater than 26% – 5.5 million vehicles compared with 2000’s gaudy, Firestone-fueled total of 7.5 million.

The numbers at GM are down by nearly 57% – 2.5 million affected vehicles to 5.8 million.

Meanwhile, DaimlerChrysler Corp. – including medium- and heavy-duties – showed marginal improvement on the campaign front with 28 recalls, two fewer than in 2000. But the scope of its 2001 campaigns suggest dramatic quality recovery, with 2.5 million prospective vehicles affected – 60% less than the 6.2 million implicated in 2000’s recall campaigns.

Next worst was BMW with 15 total campaigns. Its recalls had implications for 137,472 vehicles, including motorcycles. Notably, nine campaigns involved cars or trucks. Six of the nine were linked to in-plant process problems. One involved more than 14,000 X5s suffering from improper installation of the steering column spindle.

"In such a case, the fastening bolt used to secure the connection may not completely engage the spindle within the coupling," NHTSA says. "During driving, it would be possible for the spindle to disconnect, resulting in a loss of steering capability and increasing the risk of a crash."

American Honda Motor Co. Inc. finished fifth from the bottom with 12 total campaigns. They had implications for 276,059 vehicles, including motorcycles.

Of the major auto makers who sell in the North American market, Volkswagen of America Inc. recorded the fewest recall campaigns with five. They had implications for just over 100,000 vehicles.

Campaigns cited in this latest NHTSA document involve light-vehicle recalls dating back to model-year ’89. Work soon will begin on the 2002 recall report, says a source. Aided by the upgraded computer system, plans call for its completion before third quarter.