Ford defends Mustang shifter from defect complaints

Justin Hyde

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Earlier this year, federal auto safety regulators launched a defect probe into nearly 30,000 Ford Mustangs after dozens of complaints about their manual 6-speed transmissions. Now Ford’s provided its official reply:  There’s no defect here, we’ve fixed what was wrong, and many of the problems are the owners’ fault.

Ford’s detailed response to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration filed last month doesn't disclose a specific number of complaints, but does suggest roughly 900 reports to the automaker from 29,807 2011 and 2012 model year Ford Mustangs sold with the MT82 manual transmission. While Ford does face two lemon-law suits to buy back defective ‘Stangs, none of the reports blame the shifter for any crashes or injuries.

Ford and Getrag build the MT82 at a joint venture in China; the same design has been used by Getrag in other vehicles worldwide. Since it went into production in late 2010, Ford has made two mechanical changes, fixing a bolt that was prone to slipping out and recommending owners switch transmission fluids. But the complaints continued to grow after those fixes, with some owners flooding forums with reports that the repairs only halted their balky shifting temporarily. Several made videos showing the problems they had in gear-grinding detail, and concerns that a missed shift in traffic could lead to a wreck.

Ford’s letter to the NHTSA says while it had a few reports of mechanical trouble, the problem was inflamed by blogs, specifically forums that urged visitors to report problems to NHTSA with the phrase “safety concern.” That’s the bright line U.S. auto regulators must cross when deciding whether a vehicle’s defect warrants a recall. A car may be riddled with balky parts, but as long as they don’t impede on safety, federal regulators can’t pressure automakers into a recall. (Automakers can issue their own recalls, often cloaked with the phrase "customer satisfaction campaign" or other such blather, that don't officially count as a safety recall.)

The automaker says the bulk of complaints come from an “increased social media focus by a couple of dissatisfied customers,” along with “improper vehicle modifications” and signs of vehicle abuse — like rear tires worn more than front tires from burnouts. It also says "customer unfamiliarity" with the differences between the 6-speed and former 5-speed transmission, along with a skip-shift feature to boost fuel economy, added to the complaints.

With Ford's response, NHTSA now must decide whether to broaden its probe or close it, a call that could take months. Ford maintains the mechanical fixes have reduced complaints, and that for now it "has no plans for modifications."