A recall can be initiated by an automaker or demanded by the government.
Both GM and NHTSA have been criticized by safety advocates and lawmakers for their slow responses to a deadly ignition switch problem in 2.6 million GM small cars. GM admitted knowing about the problem for more than a decade, yet didn't start recalling the cars until February. The company says it knows of 13 deaths in crashes linked to the ignition switches, but family members of crash victims say the number is much higher.
The Ion was one of a few GM cars included in a March 31 recall of 1.5 million vehicles worldwide to replace the power steering motors; the recall also covered some older Saturn Auras, Pontiac G6s and Chevrolet Malibus. If cars lose power steering, they can still be steered, but with much greater effort. Drivers can be surprised by the problem and lose control of the cars and crash.
In a statement issued Saturday, GM admitted that it didn't do enough to take care of the power steering problem.
NHTSA closed its investigation into the Ion because GM had decided to recall the cars, according to the documents released Saturday.
"This raises more troubling concerns about GM's and NHTSA's actions as well as questions about whether NHTSA has the capability to effectively do its job," said Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo. "I intend to aggressively pursue these issues as our congressional investigation into GM and NHTSA continues."
DeGette was a ranking member of a House subcommittee that grilled GM CEO Mary Barra earlier this month during a hearing on the ignition switch problems.
NHTSA said Saturday it was "actively working to bring this investigation to a resolution" when GM issued the recall.
"Over the past ten years, NHTSA defect investigations resulted in 1,299 recalls involving more than 95 million vehicles and items of motor vehicle equipment, which has helped us reduce vehicle fatalities to historic, all-time lows," the agency said in an emailed statement.
The number of complaints and claims with the power steering issue appears to be high when compared with other recent recalls that were preceded by NHTSA investigations. In March, three recalls — none of which were GM vehicles — were issued after two or fewer complaints. There were 29 warranty claims in one case, 263 in another and none in the third investigation. All three cases covered fewer vehicles than the Ion recall.
A search of the agency's database records shows that Ion owners started complaining about power steering failures as early as June 2004, and the first injury accident was reported to NHTSA in May 2007. The owner of a 2004 Ion reported driving 25 mph and tried to turn the steering wheel, but it locked, and the car crashed into a tree.
"Saturn stated the vehicle is not a defect," the complaint said.
Another driver who filed a complaint in July 2010 said that one evening, "midway around a bend, my vehicle's electric power steering went out and straightened my wheel, putting me into oncoming traffic."
"I could have died and killed another driver," said that person, who also owned a 2004 Saturn Ion.
The government does not identify people who file complaints with NHTSA.