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Toyota is No. 1 in vehicle recalls in ’09

WASHINGTON – In a first, Toyota led the U.S. auto industry in recalled vehicles this year, thanks to its largest safety-related problem since it began selling vehicles in the United States.

The Japanese automaker has struggled with the fallout from the recall of 4.3 million Toyota and Lexus models for unintended acceleration linked to fatal crashes.

Toyota told federal officials earlier this month it would start fixing the vehicles now, but some repairs would not be ready until March.

According to a Detroit Free Press analysis of federal data, automakers recalled 15.2 million vehicles in 2009, a sharp jump from 8.6 million in 2008.

Safety recalls have generally declined in recent years as automakers catch problems earlier, but the totals can fluctuate widely with one or two big problems.

All three Detroit automakers also saw their count of recalled vehicles rise in 2009, even as they caught problems earlier in production.

Nearly all of Ford’s recalled models were tied to one longstanding problem with cruise control switches; absent it, the company would have hit a record low.

From misplaced labels and faulty seat-belt reminder buzzers to engine fires and broken wheels, the 117 recalls from automakers in 2009 covered a vast range of safety-related problems.

Such problems are as close as the federal government comes to tracking the quality of cars and trucks, and in years past have mirrored the quality scores from outlets such as Consumer Reports.

While Toyota’s accelerator problem accounted for most of the nearly 4.9 million vehicles it recalled in 2009, the automaker issued eight other recalls for problems ranging from missing safety labels to corroded pickup frames that pushed it to its top spot.

“It’s an unfortunate ranking, and certainly one Toyota doesn’t wish to have,” said Celeste Migliore, spokeswoman for Toyota. “The safety of our owners and the public remain our utmost concern, and Toyota has and will take appropriate measures to correct any defect it identifies.”

Ford recalled 4.5 million older cars and trucks because of a problem with cruise control switches that can catch fire, a defect the automaker has struggled with for a decade that has affected 16 million vehicles.

Outside of that recall, Ford called back just 21,993 vehicles in 2009, a minuscule total for a major automaker.

General Motors recalled 2.3 million vehicles, the third-highest total, but had the most recalls issued among automakers with 17.

Chrysler’s total of 590,044 cars and trucks recalled was the lowest among the Detroit Three.