The Chevrolet Malibu’s steering wheel is a hot commodity for a ring of thieves in metro Detroit.
Police said at least two groups of thieves are stealing steering wheels from the midsize sedans for the airbags inside them. A Chevrolet dealer said he has seen the vandalism and theft on Equinox SUVs too.
A shortage has created a black market for the airbags, car dealers said.
For owners, the average cost to replace an airbag system and steering wheel on these Chevy vehicles is $1,500 to $2,500, depending on the vehicle and the options, said Paul Zimmermann, vice president and owner of Matick Chevrolet in Redford, MIchigan. Plus, if the thieves break the windows or damage the door trim panel and paint, it can be hundreds more, he said.
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Zimmermann said his dealership has had to repair about a dozen vehicles recently that were damaged from these thefts.
“There is no pattern here,” to the thefts, said Harper Woods Public Safety Director Vince Smith. “Some cars are parked on a street, some in a driveway and some in apartment building garages. It’s happening throughout the city. (The thieves) are checking all the streets to see what’s there, then they must circle back to steal the steering wheels.”
The thefts have been happening in the Michigan communities of Harper Woods, Eastpointe, St. Clair Shores, Roseville, Warren and Detroit since early May, said Eastpointe police Lt. Martin Campbell. The robberies target 2017-2021 model year Malibu cars, Campbell and Smith said. There are no suspects yet.
“Over the metro Detroit area, there were hundreds of cars affected,” Campbell said. “Here, there’ve been at least 10, in this small town.”
‘No evidence’ left behind
In Harper Woods, Michigan, about a dozen Malibus were broken into for the steering wheel between May 4 and May 11, Smith said. A dozen more incidents occurred between June 9 and June 15.
The thieves are targeting the Malibu mainly because its steering wheel is easy to steal, Campbell said.
“There are only a few bolts they’ve got to undo and obviously they know what they’re doing and they’ve done it numerous times. Once you practice stuff, it gets easier,” Campbell said. “And they’re not leaving any evidence — no prints, nothing.”
Campbell and Smith said the thieves take the whole steering wheel because it’s faster to do that and disassemble it later to remove the airbag.
“The airbag is all encased and it’s easier — so the airbag doesn’t go off — it’s easier to take the whole thing,” Smith said. “Years ago, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Dodges were targeted for airbag theft because they were easy.”
Smith said the thieves take the hot airbags to junkyards or other “dealers” to sell them.
“Any reputable dealer or junkyard is tracking this now to prevent this from happening because it’ll come back on them if they buy one,” Smith said.
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Ways to protect your car
General Motors did not provide an immediate response to inquiries about why the Malibu steering wheels are so easy to remove and if it is doing anything to change that in future models.
But Smith and Campbell said there are ways to protect your vehicle for people if you have a model that thieves might target:
- Park it in the garage if you have one.
- Park it under a street light or where it is well lit.
- If you see or hear something suspicious, immediately call 911.
As for locking the car, while always a good idea, in this case they smash the windows, Smith said. Also, steering wheel locks don’t necessarily help, because the whole wheel is being removed.
So pay attention. “Light up your house, light up where your cars are and use motion detector lights,” Campbell said. “If people see, especially late at night or after midnight, people driving slow and checking out cars, give us a call. We will come and check it out.”
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Follow Detroit Free Press reporter Jamie L. LaReau on Twitter @jlareauan.