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Nissan's Massive Airbag Recall: What Owners Need to Know

13_Nissan_Pathfinder_ES.jpg 2013 Nissan Pathfinder | Cars.com photo by Evan Sears

CARS.COM — Nissan just recalled 3.2 million vehicles in the U.S. for passenger-side airbags that may fail to deploy because of a faulty passenger occupant sensor. This recall is not related to the massive Takata airbag recall. The affected pool of cars includes a number of popular Nissan models, including the Sentra, Altima, Leaf, Murano, Pathfinder, Rogue and several other models.

Related: Recall Alert: 3.2 Million Nissan, Infiniti and Chevrolet Vehicles

The affected cars and model years are:

  • 2013-2016 Nissan Altima
  • 2013-2016 Nissan Leaf
  • 2016-2017 Nissan Maxima
  • 2015-2016 Nissan Murano
  • 2013-2016 Nissan NV200
  • 2013-2017 Nissan Pathfinder
  • 2014-2017 Nissan Rogue
  • 2013-2016 Nissan Sentra
  • 2014-2016 Infiniti Q50
  • 2013-2016 Infiniti JX35/QX60
  • 2015-2016 Chevrolet City Express

We’ll try to answer as many questions as we can below.

What’s the problem?

The recall stems from an occupant classification sensor for the front passenger seat that shuts off an airbag if it detects that someone who is too light in weight is in the seat, Nissan North America safety spokesman Steve Yaeger said. Such sensors are intended to prevent an airbag from deploying on a child, whom it could injure. The recall stems from a potentially faulty sensor that could misidentify an adult passenger in the front seat. In that situation, the airbag may not deploy.

How do I know if this is a problem in my car?

All affected cars will eventually need service, but you can tell if there’s a problem right now from your car’s passenger-side airbag indicator light. That’s a yellow dashboard light that typically comes on to indicate that the airbag is off because it senses some, but not enough, weight in the passenger seat. If the light stays on when there’s an adult in the seat, it could be a sign of a faulty OCS. Nissan says there could also be a problem if you see a red airbag warning light on your dashboard.

In either case, the automaker advises you bring your vehicle in for service.

Check your owner’s manual to be sure of the proper operation, appearance and location for both lights. We looked up the OCS operation in the owner’s manual of a 2015 Altima, which notes that the light will turn off — but the airbag will still be off — when the seat is empty.

Why are non-Nissan brands involved?

Infiniti is Nissan’s luxury division, while the Chevrolet City Express is a compact cargo van that shares its roots with the NV200.

Are all the vehicles listed actually involved?

Not necessarily, but the numbers suggest a large majority will be. Yaeger said the recall will be specific to individual vehicle identification numbers, but “it’s going to be the majority of these vehicles.”

If I’m shopping for one of these cars, is there a dealer stop-sale?

Not for the moment, but one could still occur.

“We haven’t established the actual VIN list” of recalled cars, Yaeger said. “We’re going to have one soon, but until that happens, we can’t do a stop-sale until we have VINs.”

Nissan can’t yet tell dealers which particular cars are affected, he added. “That’s going to be determined soon, but it hasn’t been determined right now,” he said. “We’re making the filing with estimated [vehicle] population, but we’ve got a little bit of work” to do.

What if I have a child-safety seat up front and the light doesn’t come on?

First off, cut that out now. Kids and car seats belong in the backseat; it’s dangerous to have them up front. Yaeger echoed that, but he said this situation is another indication — in this case, that the OCS has mistakenly determined there’s an adult in the seat — of a faulty sensor. If you observe this, bring your car in for repairs.

But all these lights are on when I start the car.

That’s a normal part of the startup cycle. In the Altima, for example, the OCS light should illuminate for around seven seconds when you start the car.

Should I stop putting passengers in the front seat?

If you don’t see any malfunctioning warning lights, Nissan says you don’t have to do that. “If there’s no lights on and it seems to be acting properly when an adult is sitting in the car, we’re not advising them to get out of the seat and sit in the back,” Yaeger said. However, you’ll still need to bring the car in once you get the recall notice.

When will I get the notice?

Nissan will send out letters within 60 days. The automaker is developing a remedy plan now and says it will begin notifying dealers in late May. Expect to receive an interim notification first, plus a second letter once the repair is available. In the meantime, ensure your car is registered at your current address. Otherwise you might not get the notice.

If my OCS light is acting up and I bring my car in now, can I ignore the recall?

No. Dealers will try to “find the source of why it’s [malfunctioning] — they can look at the sensor and see if it’s damaged,” Yaeger said. It’s an issue that owners “should get looked at to see what could be either replaced or reprogrammed.”

But that isn’t the same as the long-term repair, he added. You’ll have to get your car fixed twice, but don’t skip either repair: A front airbag that doesn’t deploy when it should could be deadly.

Is this related to the Takata airbag recall?

No. Nissan is among the 12 automakers involved in Takata’s massive airbag recall, but today’s announcement is separate. Other vehicles that are affected by the previous recall by Takata include Subaru and Mazda. Faulty Takata airbags are present in many popular vehicles, but this particular recall is not related to the recall of vehicles containing products rom Takata.

Can I get a loaner vehicle while I wait for the repair?

Check with your dealer. It’s “too early yet” to determine that, Yaeger said; Nissan will determine any loaner program “once the timetable is set up.”

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