May 29, 2014 at 11:16 pm

Under regulatory pressure, Ford recalling 1.4 million vehicles

2008 Ford Escape (Ford Motor Company)

Washington —Ford Motor Co. is recalling nearly 1.4 million vehicles in four separate recall campaigns, including 1.1 million Ford Escapes, Mercury Mariners and Ford Explorers in North America for power steering problems.

Three of the four recalls came under pressure from U.S. and Canadian auto safety regulators seeking repairs of the vehicles — a sign that government agencies are taking a harder line with automakers in the aftermath of the General Motors Co. recall crisis. Ford opted to recall the vehicles rather than fight regulators.

The Dearborn automaker said it is calling back 915,000 2008-11 Escapes and Mariners in North America under pressure from Canadian auto safety regulators, who have been investigating the issue since late 2011. Ford told the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration it has reports of five U.S. crashes and six injuries connected to the issue. Ford said because of poor signal-to-noise issues in the torque sensor, the vehicles’ power steering system may shut off and default to manual steering, which could make it harder to steer and lead to a crash.

In a separate campaign, Ford is recalling 195,500 2011-13 Explorers in North America for a potential electrical issue in the steering gear that may result in the loss of electric power steering assist while driving. If this happens, the steering system defaults to manual steering mode, making the vehicle more difficult to steer. Ford said if assist is lost, drivers will hear a chime and see a message in the instrument cluster. The recall covers 177,500 Explorers in the United States.

Both Transport Canada and NHTSA had been investigating the Explorers for several years. NHTSA opened an investigation in 2012. In April, Ford met with NHTSA officials at the Transportation Research Center in East Liberty, Ohio. NHTSA officials drove an Explorer that could be manually triggered to simulate loss of power steering assist. After further talks “Ford understood that at that time NHTSA was recommending that a safety field action be undertaken for this issue,” the automaker said.

Under government pressure, Ford also is recalling 82,500 driver’s side all-weather Ford floor mats that may be in 2006-11 Ford Fusion, Mercury Milan, Lincoln Zephyr and MKZ cars. If improperly installed, the mats may come in contact with the accelerator pedal. Owners will be asked to return the mats for a new set.

NHTSA has been investigating the floor mat issue for four years. NHTSA said it had 52 reports of problems with floor mats in its investigation of 480,000 2008-10 Fusion, Milan and MKZ cars. After NHTSA told Ford it was recommending a recall, Ford opted to recall the vehicles.

Ford also is recalling 196,000 2010-14 Tauruses for rust in the license plate lamp which could cause a fire. Ford said it has reports of 18 fires and one injury when a driver attempted to put out the fire with his hand. Ford got the first report of a fire in 2011; the automaker introduced a revised lamp in February.

The recall covers vehicles sold or registered in 20 states — including Michigan — and Washington, D.C., where high amounts of road salt are used. Ford will also notify owners in states where the vehicles will not be recalled and if owners ask, dealers will replace the license plate lamp assembly.

For the Escape and Mariner recalls, Ford spokeswoman Kelli Felker said dealers “will either update software for the power steering control module and the instrument cluster module; replace the torque sensor; or replace the steering column, which includes upgraded power steering control module software.” Ford will notify owners by July 25.

Ford told NHTSA that it and its supplier Delphi — now known as Nexteer — first got reports of problems in the Escapes and Mariners in September 2009, primarily in taxi fleets. In September 2010, Ford improved the torque sensor, but didn’t view the issue as a safety problem in the older vehicles.

Transport Canada, the auto safety agency, asked Ford in November 2011 to respond to seven reports of power steering problems in 2005-2011 Escapes. In January 2013, Transport Canada again upgraded its investigation and after narrowing the scope to the 2008-2011 Escapes, upgraded the investigation in October.

In January 2014, Ford released a sensor repair kit to address customer concerns related to the high costs of repairs. Ford and Canada have been in talks for months; in April, Ford offered to let Transport Canada officials drive an Escape that could be manually triggered to turn off the power steering. Ford said on May 19 it reviewed Canada’s position “and approved a safety field action to address their concerns.”

For the Explorer recall, dealers will either update software for the power steering control module or replace the steering gear. Dealers are largely expected to update the software, Felker said.

In agreeing to the new recalls, Ford opted not to fight as hard as it did in 2011, when it reluctantly agreed to call back 1.3 million F-150 pickups after air bags suddenly deployed in more than 260 cases.

Automakers have recalled more than 20 million vehicles in the United States this year and are on pace to break the all-time record of 30.8 million vehicles recalled in 2004. GM has recalled about 13.8 million vehicles in the United States this year.

dshepardson@detroitnews.com