In a mysterious move, General Motors told dealers Thursday night to stop delivering 2013 and 2014 Chevrolet Cruze compacts with 1.4-liter engines -- which account for about 60% of Cruze sales -- but GM won't say why it issued the order.
It left dealers scrambling to find out more details from GM, so they could answer questions from Cruze buyers who can't get their cars immediately.
Such "stop-delivery" orders are fairly common. Dealers can continue to sell cars, but can't hand them over to buyers until the issue that triggered the halt is fixed.
"I have no details," GM spokesman Alan Adler said. "I'm sure somebody knows" why the order was issued, but neither he nor other GM spokesmen would provide further information.
General Motors last August recalled 292,879 of its 2011-2012 Cruzes with the same 1.4-liter turbo engine that's now involved in the stop-delivery order, in that recall, power assist for the brakes could fail due to a faulty switch.
Dealers say such halts, also known as "stop-sale" orders, are routine and almost always related to a safety problem.
The stops are a fast way to prevent defective cars from getting into customers' hands and forcing an automaker to fix them later via an embarrassing public safety recall.
The halt, and the murkiness surrounding it, can't do GM any good, as the big automaker prepares to defend its handling of a recall last month of 1.62 million cars worldwide to retrace fatally flawed ignition switches. CEO Mary Barra is scheduled to testify before a House committee Tuesday.
In the recalled cars, faulty ignition switches can shut off the engine and kill power to the airbags so they provide no protection in a crash. GM says it knows of 31 accidents and 12 deaths related to the switches.
According to recall-related documents the automaker filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, GM knew it had a switch problem in 2001 during development of the 2003 Saturn Ion, again in 2003 when a mechanic found the problem in a customer's car, and in 2004 when a GM engineer experienced the key fault during final development of the 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt.
In April 2006, a GM engineer approved a change in the switch design, but -- in a highly irregular and possibly illegal move -- the modified component wasn't assigned a new part number. GM thinks it started using the updated switch on 2007 models late in 2006, but isn't certain.
GM didn't recall the cars at that time of the switch change, when fewer were on the roads and recall repairs using the new switch would have been less costly.
Trade publication Automotive News says its research shows that at least eight of the 12 deaths were in cars manufactured before the switch change, and that a recall in 2006 could have saved those lives.
Barra, in an interview with reporters March 18 at GM's downtown Detroit headquarters, acknowledged that the company "took too long" to respond to evidence there was a problem.
Still, GM might legally escape responsibility for deaths, injuries and damage in most of the accidents. Nearly all took place before foundering GM went through government-scripted reorganization in 2009. As part of that, "new GM" shed most responsibility for acts of "old GM."
Barra, in the March 18 interview, refused to waive that liability protection.
Lawyers suing GM are laying groundwork to prove the car company knew about the problem before the reorganization and illegally conspired to conceal it.
If proved, that could make "new GM" responsible.
The 1.37 million cars recalled in the U.S. are the 2005-07 Chevrolet Cobalt, 2007 Pontiac G5, 2003-07 Saturn Ion, 2006-07 Chevrolet HHR, 2006-07 Pontiac Solstice and 2007 Saturn Sky.
GM and NHTSA say the cars are unlikely to have the key problem if drivers use only the ignition key, with no key chain attached. Extra weight hanging from the key can make the switch more likely to move, or be bumped, out of the "run" position.