10 Most Recalled Vehicles of the Past 25 Years

It’s safe to say 2014 was a bad year for automakers and recalls. In fact, it was the worst year in the industry’s history with over 40 million vehicles heading back for corrections. General Motors led the pack with its ignition switch debacle, but Ford, Chrysler, and other automakers have had their own problems. Maybe the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has done a better job at holding automakers accountable for mistakes, but it would be difficult to deny there have been serious lapses during manufacturing.

To get an idea which automobiles have been called back more than the rest, a look at the “potentially affected” list from NHTSA recalls is instructive. A graphic from the FiveThirtyEight blog displays the list of the most potentially recalled vehicles since 1990. It is unlikely the total number of vehicles (all in the millions) were recalled in every case. Nonetheless, a recurring appearance on the list is noteworthy, even if the longest (and best) selling nameplates are bound to take precedence due to sheer sales volume.

Here are the ten most recalled models of the last quarter-century ranked on their appearance on the “potentially affected” list, according to FiveThirtyEight. All vehicle recall information was sourced at Safercar.gov.

Source: Ram

10. Dodge Ram

Dodge Ram pickups (now simply “Ram”) and the obsolete Pontiac Grand Prix tied for tenth (and eleventh, technically) place on the list of vehicles most potentially affected by recall notices (5.7 million) since 1990. Since Ram pickups are such high-volume sellers and the Grand Prix no longer exists, it’s a safe bet the Ram trucks were recalled in far higher volumes than the Pontiacs were. In 2013, 1.2 million Ram trucks from the past decade were recalled due to steering system problems.

GM And Chrysler Get First Loan Payment From U.S. Treasury
Source: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

9. Chevrolet HHR

What is the Chevy HHR? It was (per GM) a “trendy” midsize vehicle that had a brief production run lasting from 2005 to 2011. Unfortunately, that was the era of the faulty ignition switch. FiveThirtyEight has the count of potentially affected HHR models at 6.2 million, though fewer than one million models sold in the U.S. during that period. Nonetheless, every Chevy HHR that was ever sold in the U.S. was recalled at one time or another, with some models racking up multiple recalls for airbag and power steering problems in addition to the ignition switch issue.

Chevrolet Malibu Wins 2008 North American Car Of The Year
Handout/Getty Images

8. Chevrolet Malibu

The Chevy Malibu has the dubious distinction of being General Motors’ most recalled vehicle. Part of the ignition switch debacle that engulfed the automaker in 2014, some 6.7 million models of the Malibu (including variants such as the Malibu Classic) and were involved in recalls. One example from 2014 brought back models to correct the loss of power steering, but an article in The Wall Street Journal highlighted five separate recalls for the 2009 Malibu alone. That’s one troubled car, but it didn’t stop it from being named North American Car of the Year in 2008. (A recount may be in order.)

Source: Toyota

7. Toyota Tacoma

To make sense of the number of Toyota Tacoma trucks potentially affected by recalls (7.3 million) since 1990, it is instructive to take a glance at the 2010 model, which racked up ten recalls on its own. From the less serious recalls like the wrong tire size and load capacity listings to graver issues surrounding the airbags and seat belts (as well as the pedal entrapment problem) in the Tacoma, owners of 2010 models must be exhausted from the many trips they have made to Toyota’s service centers over the years.

1986 Ford Taurus/Ford Motor Company

6. Ford Taurus

The debut of the Taurus in 1986 represented a design breakthrough for Ford. As a result, the car (a midsize sedan for most of its existence) was a best seller by the time the second generation was introduced in 1992. This popularity allowed for almost continuous production since the first model appeared. Today the nameplate survives in Ford’s full-size sedan, a version that debuted in 2008.

With longevity comes the opportunity for glitches, and the Taurus has had its share since 1990. Around 7.4 million models have been named as potentially affected in recalls in that quarter-century time frame. The latest version had its most recent recall in July 2014, but a look back to the 1990s shows a myriad of problems. A 1997 recall centered around a faulty fan that could “cause smoke or flames” and a 2008 recall that brought in second-generation (ca. 1993) Taurus models for electrical problems.

Dodge Grand Caravan
Source: Chrysler Group

5. Dodge Caravan

The Dodge Caravan has been hauling families across the lower 48 and beyond since 1984, but it would be the second-generation model debuting in 1990 that starts the clock on this recount tally. At 7.7 million potentially affected models, it’s been a busy quarter-century for dealers servicing and updating recalled Caravans. In May 2014, several hundred thousand Caravans were recalled for faulty power window switches that could catch fire. Previously, models circa 2008 through 2010 had a pair of recalls resulting from a retrofit of handicapped seating equipment, which in one instance compromised the vehicle’s fuel pipes.

Source: Ford

4. Ford Explorer

Ford has sold millions of Explorer utility vehicles since the model’s debut in 1990, and the number of times it has been named as a potentially affected vehicle in recall notices (7.8 million) is partially a reflection of that volume. The most recent recall cited a recurring problem in the industry: loss of power steering. Obviously, a sudden shift to heavy steering repsonsiblities  in the middle of any sharp turn could become a deadly situation.

Flash back to the 1998 model and the picture of a very troubled past emerges. The Ford Explorer from the 1998 model year racked up 14 recalls and nearly 2,000 complaints to the NHTSA. Exterior lighting problems, visibility issues, fire hazards, and runaway accelerator dangers existed, to name a few. Possibly the scariest recall involved Firestone tire treads that had the potential to fail at highway speeds.

Public Domain

3. Mercury Topaz

The Mercury Topaz is no longer on the road, but considering the number of vehicles that were involved in potential recalls (8.1 million), the world might be better for it. Along with its corporate twin the Ford Tempo, the Topaz had a ten-year run between 1984 and 1994. That leaves only a few years for the Topaz to qualify for this metric (beginning after 1990) but the little old Mercury certainly made its mark on the NHTSA in that time slot. Using the 1992 moodel year as one example, the Topaz had a short-circuiting ignition switch and fault cooling fans installed — fire hazards in both cases.

Source: Honda

2. Honda Accord

When Honda debuted its fourth-generation Accord in 1990, it started its run as one of America’s favorite cars. Since then, it has also been one of the most recalled vehicles by auto safety regulators. About 8.7 million Accords have been potentially affected by recall notices Honda issued over the past quarter-century. Perhaps the biggest single recall involved exploding airbags that were installed in six million vehicles made by Honda.

For one of the more hideous records in auto history, however, a look at the 1998 Honda Accord is useful. The NHTSA lists eighteen separate recalls and nearly 1,100 complaints for that edition of the Accord. Several of the recalls had to do with lighting issues, but several serious problems were among the number. Seat belts that could break off from their latches, a faulty ignition switch, sudden engine stalling, potential for rollaway after parking, and power failure were recall-worthy defects from that model year.

Ford F-150

1. Ford F-150

The undisputed king of U.S. auto sales for over three decades is also the king of recalls by a mile. About 14.7 million models of the Ford F-150 have been potentially affected by recall notices since 1990, which represents a six million recall gap between it and the second-place Accord. In June, Ford expanded a small-scale recall to include over 5,000 pickups that had problems with power steering.

Traveling back to the 1998 model (so fateful for so many automakers), the Ford F-150 matched the unusually high total of the Accord by issuing 18 recalls that year with 1,349 complaints filed to the NHTSA. Numerous lighting problems, potential fuel leaks, an overheating speed control switch, and the possibility of the wheels separating from the vehicle were notable hazards that warranted recalls that year. Considering F-150 sales approached the million mark several times, it’s easy to see how recalls can add up to this astronomical figure.