Test-driving GM's recalled ignitions, Costanza style

By now you’ve probably heard of GM’s ignition-recall debacle regardless of whether you drive a GM car. At this point, GM’s recalled 1,367,146 cars that might’ve had a faulty ignition, plus another 824,000 newer cars that could’ve received the bogus part during a repair. The company acknowledges that the problem is linked to 31 crashes and at least 13 fatalities. So if you drive one of those 2.2 million cars awaiting a new ignition, the obvious question becomes: Is my car a deathtrap? I decided to find out by testing one of the afflicted models, a 2007 Saturn Sky Red Line.

The ignition recall involves GM’s small cars — Chevy Cobalt, Chevy HHR, Saturn Sky, Saturn Ion and any Pontiac versions thereof. If you drive one of these cars, you probably have one that’s subject to the recall. GM’s claim is that not all of the ignition switches are bad, but since it’d be infeasible to find the bum ones amongst 2.2 million cars, they’re just replacing them all.

According to GM, the company issued the recall, “because the ignition switch torque performance may not meet GM specifications. If the torque performance is not to specification, and the key ring is carrying added weight or the vehicle goes off road or experiences some other jarring event, the ignition switch may inadvertently be moved out of the ‘run’ position.” Compounding the problem, if the car’s not running then the airbags might not deploy.

The Sky Red Line, a 260-hp turbocharged two-seater, is undoubtedly the sexiest machine that’s part of the recall. Prior to the recall, this particular example shut down at highway speed after the owner bumped the keychain with his knee (in the confines of a Sky, the ignition is in close proximity to your right leg). The owner — not a litigious type — restarted it on the fly, kept driving and forgot about the whole incident until the recall notice showed up in his mailbox. He loaned me the car to see if I could duplicate the problem.

I drove to an abandoned housing development, a place with roads but no traffic, to find out how hard it is to cause the ignition cutout. First, I added a light keychain to the naked key, with no problems. I gradually added heavier and heavier items — more key fobs, toenail clippers, a model of a piston — until I had the keychain version of George Costanza’s wallet. I bumped, jostled and smacked it, drove over sharp-edged manhole covers and generally tried to inflict trauma upon the steering column. Still, the car kept running.

It wasn’t until I purposefully switched off the ignition that I realized where the problem lies: the detent is strong when you’re turning the key forward to start the car, but it nearly disappears when you’re switching the engine off. I tried gently pulling straight down on the keychain and voila — the key easily rotated back into the accessory position, killing the engine.

Now, granted, I did this on purpose, but, A: pulling down on a keychain shouldn’t provide enough torque to spin an ignition switch past its detent, and B: given the sheer number of cars affected, how many times a day did someone accidentally snag a keychain while driving? And this, mind you, is a relatively pampered Sky with only 24,000 miles. I imagine that a Chevy Cobalt with 120,000 miles and thousands more on/off cycles under its belt might have a well-trashed ignition by now.

The good news is that GM’s interim fix of removing the keychain seems to actually address the problem. I don’t think you’d manage to bump the key out of the run position without anything hanging off it. So keep driving, GM small car owners, but stash those bottle openers and toenail clippers somewhere else. And if something unexpected happens when you’re driving, try not to panic. This Sky is in one piece because the owner reacted to the shutdown in the most logical way possible — by immediately turning the car back on. Which, sure, requires situational awareness and some rudimentary knowledge about how your car works. But hopefully you possess those qualities even if your car was never recalled at all.