Record Recalls But Rising Sales: 2014's Best, Worst Moments for Autos

Jan 01, 2015 10:30 AM EST | Jordan Ecarma

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2014 was a doozy for the automotive world. Yes, car sales were up and gas prices were down, but the year also marked the most recalls in the United States ever, almost doubling the previous record.

Here are the auto industry's highlights and low points for 2014--and here's hoping federal regulators and carmakers work together to figure out a better recall system in the new year.  

Roughest Moments

1. All. Those. Recalls.

Carmakers recalled more than 60 million vehicles in the U.S. in 2014, which is the equivalent of one in five cars on the road. That figure almost doubles the 2004 record of 30.8 vehicles.

Even with fatalities related to recalls making headlines, safety advocates remain concerned that consumers will suffer from "recall fatigue" and fail to bring their cars in for repairs.

2. General Motors' Ignition-Switch Disaster

GM's now-infamous ignition-switch debacle will go down in auto history, and it will continue to make headlines for at least a couple more years. The recall of 2.59 million small cars, including the Chevrolet Cobalt and Saturn Ion, has been related to at least 42 deaths and dozens of injuries and resulted in a maximum $35 million federal fine for the automaker. But the saga isn't over--GM faces a bellwether safety-defect trial in January 2016 that consolidates some 130 lawsuits against the company as well as an ongoing Justice Department investigation.

3. Toyota's Whopping $1.2 Billion Fine

The Japanese automaker agreed to a $1.2 billion settlement in March after a four-year criminal investigation found that Toyota had covered up unintended acceleration issues in more than 10 million vehicles. Along with the federal fine, which was the largest ever for an automaker, Toyota paid $66 million in civil penalties. The safety issue has been related to at least five deaths.

4. Takata's Fatal Air Bags

In case a car that suddenly accelerates or an engine that shuts off without warning isn't terrifying enough, air bags put into millions of vehicles worldwide have been known to rupture and spray shrapnel at the vehicle's occupants. Related to at least five deaths, the faulty air bag inflators have resulted in 10 automakers recalling more than 21 million vehicles worldwide since 2008.

5. A Floundering NHTSA

It wasn't a red-letter year for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration either. The agency has been under fire for failing to catch problems like the GM ignition switches before they caused fatalities. NHTSA was also without a permanent leader for nearly a year, with deputy administrator David Friedman leading the agency for 11 months before Mark Rosekind was installed as NHTSA chief.

Bright Spots

1. Sales Boom

Even automakers hit by headline-making recalls enjoyed strong sales last year. Analysts project that new-vehicle sales rose 10 percent for December, which would make 2014's total an impressive 16.5 million in sales.

2. Fiat and Chrysler's Happy Ending

The merger of Italian Fiat and American Chrysler seems to have gone smoothly, with the newly dubbed Fiat Chrysler Automobiles enjoying 56 consecutive months of year-over-year gains.

In mid-December, Chrysler Group changed its name to FCA US LLC, while Fiat Group became FCA Italy SpA "to emphasize the fact that all Group companies worldwide are part of a single organization," according to the automaker.

3. Ford's Bold F-150 Move

Ford took a $1 billion risk to retrofit facilities for the new F-150, which features a lighter aluminum body and marks the first time a high-volume production vehicle has foregone steel.

The automaker announced mileage ratings for the pickup in late November; the version equipped with a 2.7-liter turbocharged V6 engine gets 19 miles per gallon in the city, 26 mpg on the highway and 22 mpg combined.

The most fuel-efficient version of the 2014 Ford F-150 gets 16 mpg in the city, 22 mpg on the highway and 18 mpg combined, according to EPA-estimated ratings

4. Cheap Gas, Finally

The AAA's final gas report for 2014 predicts that U.S. car owners could save as much as $75 billion on gas costs this year thanks to lower prices, NBC News reported. Falling gas prices boosted vehicle sales and saved Americans around $14 billion in 2014.

The cheapest gas in the nation on the last day of the year was in Missouri, which had an average regular gas price of $1.89, according to GasBuddy.com.

5. Tesla

The Palo Alto, Calif.-based company makes the list of highlights for always being a source of fun. Whether it's raising stock value with an Elon Musk tweet or stubbornly fighting dealerships over its direct-sales model, there's never a dull moment with Tesla.

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