DETROIT — General Motors is recalling nearly 60,000 Saturn Aura midsize cars because the automatic transmission shift levers can show the wrong gear, and says it has known about the problem for at least a year.
The problem, caused by failure of the transmission shift cable, has led to 28 crashes and four injuries but no deaths during the past seven years, GM said in a statement issued Tuesday. The Auras can roll away unexpectedly because the driver may think the car is in "Park" when it's in another gear.
In a letter detailing the recall submitted to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, GM said it had a plan as of May 23, 2013, to reimburse owners for transmission cable repairs. It was unclear why the cars weren't recalled sooner.
Spokesman Alan Adler said he wasn't aware of the plan referred to in the letter. "We're continuing to review this with NHTSA even now," he said. "They know what we're doing."
GM is already dealing with the delayed recall of 2.6 million small cars due to a deadly ignition switch problem. Two congressional committees, the Justice Department and NHTSA are investigating how GM handled that problem, which it knew about for at least a decade before deciding to recall the cars in February.
GM says at least 13 people have died in crashes linked to the switch problem, but trial lawyers have at least 53 wrongful death lawsuits pending against the company.
GM and Toyota both have acknowledged concealing safety defects and are fixing troubles from the past, said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety. "GM is now cleaning out its delayed and hidden defects through safety recalls," he said in an e-mail.
All told, GM has recalled about 7 million cars and trucks since February.
This latest recall affects certain Auras from the 2007 and 2008 model years, mostly made in the U.S., with four-speed automatic transmissions.
The shift cable can fracture, according to GM. If the problem happens while the car is moving, the gear shift could show the wrong gear, and the driver won't be able to shift into "Park" or remove the ignition key.
GM says it will notify owners and replace the cable and mounting bracket at no cost to owners. GM hasn't determined yet when repair parts will be available.
The affected Auras were made between April 24, 2006 and Oct. 31, 2007, GM says. GM stopped making Saturn vehicles in 2009 as it headed into bankruptcy protection. The cars affected by the recall were previously covered by a 10-year, 120,000-mile extended warranty. But drivers had to experience the problem for the coverage to kick in.
GM midsize cars, including some Auras and the nearly identical Chevrolet Malibu and Pontiac G6, were part of a recall of 426,000 cars for a similar problem in 2012. That problem, though, involved the end of the shift cable and not the cable itself.
NHTSA, the U.S. government's auto safety watchdog, began investigating GM's shifter cables in May of 2011, and the investigation remains open, according to agency documents.
"We're continuing to look at these populations," Adler said of the Malibu and G6. He would not say why GM is recalling only the Aura for shift cable failures and not the other models.