The recall mainly affects cars sold by Japanese automakers in North America, Europe and Japan. A small number of cars made by Germany's BMW AG and General Motors Co. and also involved.
The front passenger air bags all were made by the same parts supplier, Japan's Takata Corp. They have faulty inflator mechanisms that don't route gas into the air bags. Instead, the high-pressure gas can launch plastic and metal parts from the air bags into the cars' passenger areas. Takata says no one has been hurt, but there have been six incidents of the air bags deploying improperly on roadways.
The recall, announced Thursday in Japan, is so large because many automakers use common parts on multiple models to cut costs and simplify manufacturing. This approach was pioneered by Japanese automakers.
The recall will bring a great deal of unwelcome publicity for automakers, especially Toyota Motor Corp., said IHS Automotive analyst Paul Newton. The world's top-selling car company is trying to rebuild a reputation for quality that was hurt by previous big recalls.
The latest recall is the fourth for Toyota since October that involves more than one million vehicles, Newton wrote in an email. And the company endured a series of huge recalls in 2009 and 2010 for faulty braking, sticky gas pedals and defective floor mats.
Toyota will have to inspect or fix 1.7 million vehicles worldwide, including about 580,000 in North America, 490,000 in Europe and 320,000 in Japan. The models include the Corolla compact, Matrix hatchback, Sequoia SUV, and Tundra pickup, as well as the Lexus SC 430 sports car. All the vehicles were manufactured from 2001 to 2003.
But the latest recall affects other major automakers, including Toyota's chief Japanese competitor. Honda Motor Co. is recalling 1.1 million vehicles worldwide, including about 680,000 in North America, 270,000 in Japan and 64,000 in Europe. Models include the Civic compact, CR-V small SUV and Odyssey minivan from the 2001 to 2003 model years.
Also, Nissan Motor Co. is recalling 480,000 vehicles worldwide, including about 265,000 in the U.S. Models include the Nissan Maxima midsize sedan, Pathfinder SUV and Sentra compact as well as the Infiniti FX crossover and QX4 SUV, all from the 2001-2003 model years. Recalled models in Japan include the Cube, X-Trail, Maxima and Teana.
Mazda Motor Co. is also part of the recall. About 45,000 Mazda RX-8 and Mazda 6 cars are affected, including 4,000 in Japan. The company said recalls will be announced in North America, Europe, China and elsewhere.
At GM, only 55,000 Pontiac Vibe hatchbacks sold in the U.S. and Canada are being recalled. The 2003 models are nearly identical to the Toyota Matrix and were made at a California plant that was jointly run with Toyota.
BMW says it's researching the problem but no numbers or models are available.
The automakers said they would inspect the air bag inflators and replace them if necessary at no cost to owners.
The air bag problem happened because of two human errors during production. A worker forgot to turn on the switch for a system weeding out defective products, and parts were improperly stored, which exposed them to humidity, according to Honda spokeswoman Akemi Ando.
The recall is Takata's largest since 1995, when nine automakers had to repair faulty front seat belts in 9 million cars sold from 1986 through 1991.
Alby Berman, spokesman for Takata in North America, acknowledged that the company's image may be hurt. But he said Takata has produced millions of reliable air bags and should have enough capital with manufacturers to withstand the publicity.
But Newton said Takata, which gets 75 percent of its revenue from outside Japan, runs the risk of losing out on new supply contracts.
Takata stock plunged as much as 15 percent before closing down 9 percent in Tokyo. Toyota, Honda, Nissan and Mazda shares rallied in Tokyo, shrugging off the recall.
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