Kansas City, Mo. The nation’s largest buyer of new cars and seller of used ones has acknowledged omitting a standard safety feature from thousands of Chevrolet Impala fleet vehicles it bought from 2006 to 2008.
The Kansas City Star reported Sunday that St. Louis-based Enterprise Rent-A-Car chose to “delete” side-curtain air bags on about 66,000 Impalas when it ordered them from the manufacturer. That saved Enterprise roughly $175 per vehicle, or about $11.5 million.
The air bags are not federally mandated on new cars. But after renting out the cars, Enterprise sold hundreds of them that were incorrectly advertised on its Web site as being equipped with the devices.
“I’ve never seen a standard safety feature removed from a vehicle,” said Sean Kane, head of Safety Research & Strategies Inc. in Rehoboth, Mass. “That’s what’s so unique about this. I’ve been doing this work for 17 years and, until now, had yet to see this happen.”
After being informed by The Star about the misleading Internet ads, the company determined that 745 Impalas sold from Enteprise’s used-car lots “were marked incorrectly, only online, as having side air bags and they did not,” said Christy Conrad, an Enterprise spokeswoman.
Though Enterprise officials noted the air bags aren’t federally mandated, it has offered to buy back all 745 cars — including 15 in the Kansas City area — for $750 above Kelley Blue Book value, regardless of condition.
For years, front-impact air bags have been mandatory in the steering wheels and dashboards of all new cars sold in the U.S. About 40 percent of all new passenger vehicles sold in 2006 had side-impact air bags.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says side impacts are the second-most common fatal accidents, killing more than 8,000 people in 2007.
Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute, called the findings astonishing.
“Fleet buyers are actually given the option to delete a safety feature that otherwise comes standard? I’ve never heard of that,” Rader said. “My personal view is that the liability concern alone would raise a lot of red flags if I were an official at Enterprise, looking to purchase cars that would be rented.”
In addition to the cars it sells on its lots, Enterprise has leased, sold or auctioned an unknown number of the vehicles to dealers and other fleet operators around the country.
Many of those dealers post ads listing side air bags among standard features of the vehicles, according to The Star.
GM says it has discontinued the fleet-buyers’ option of deleting side air bags in the 2009 model Impalas.