• Recall initiated to address non-compliant rear center seatbelt
  • Stop sale issued for Sonata Hybrids now on dealers' lots
  • Exemption sought for vehicles already delivered to customers

Hyundai issued a recall of 14,728 2011 and 2012 Sonata Hybrid models to address a rear center seatbelt that does not comply with federal motor vehicle safety regulations. Both the lap and shoulder sections of the belt are detachable at the lower anchor point, violating safety standard #208 - "Occupant Crash Protection." Hyundai says it is stopping sale of 1,633 Sonata Hybrids on a dealers' lots, but will not yet notify owners of affected vehicles for a repair. Instead, Hyundai is seeking an exemption to avoid replacing the rear center seat belt on over 13,000 vehicles it has already delivered.

Hyundai is bound by law to stop sale of the Sonata Hybrids on lots. These vehicles must be fixed because selling a vehicle that does comply with federal safety standards is illegal.

But the bulk of the affected vehicles are already in customers' hands, yet Hyundai is not immediately planning to remedy these. The company claims the detachable center seat belt does not pose a safety risk. Hyundai states in the recall documentation that they will petition the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) for an exemption on this basis. If it is granted, the company will not be obligated to notify owners and remedy the problem. If the exemption is denied, however, a notification and repair campaign is certain.

Recall campaigns are certainly expensive for manufacturers, but Hyundai's strategy in attempting to mitigate the scope of this recall is puzzling. Safety is arguably as much about reputation as it is about reality. If Hyundai succeeds in demonstrating that the detachable belt poses no risk, current owners may feel short-changed by Hyundai's reluctance to act on the safe side and fix all affected vehicles. If the exemption is denied, potential Sonata buyers may be turned off by the failed effort to avoid fixing something as simple and as important as a safety belt.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety calls the 2011 and 2012 Sonata Hybrid a Top Safety Pick, reflecting the best possible rating in a battery of crash tests. Its high marks for safety could bolster Hyundai's argument that the detachable rear center seat belt poses no threat.

No action is necessary by 2011 and 2012 Sonata Hybrid owners at this time, but for updates, follow recall campaign ID 12V098000 on the NHTSA's website, safecar.gov.

What it means to you: Hyundai will fix seatbelts in 1,633 Sonata Hybrids on dealers' lots, but is seeking an exemption to avoid repairing more than 13,000 2011 and 2012 Sonata Hybrids already delivered to customers.

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Nick Palermo is an automotive writer and lifelong car nut. He follows new and late-model used vehicles for AutoTrader.com, writes about vintage cars for Hemmings Classic Wheels and blogs on all things automotive at LivingVroom. He lives in Atlanta with his wife and twins.

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