Aug. 21, 2009 -- Volkswagen and Audi are recalling 16,000 vehicles because of transmission problems that make them lose power -- or completely stall -- out of the blue. What's most startling is that they're brand new vehicles .
The U.S. government has been investigating since July 17, but Volkswagen, which owns Audi, did not issue a recall until "Good Morning America" began asking questions.
The cars in question have a new type of transmission called a direct shift gearbox or "DSG," and in some cases they are dying right in the middle of fast-moving traffic.
It happened to Lisa Toler of California, just as she was merging onto the highway.
"You're in motion, but all of a sudden you don't have any acceleration," she described. "The gas wouldn't work."
She says fast-moving traffic streamed around her as she struggled to get over to the side of the road.
Dennis Capolongo and his son, Justin, had an eerily similar experience, just as they were merging onto a freeway in Maryland.
"There was no forward motion at all with the car. The engine was just racing and the transmission was just completely slipping," Capolongo explained.
Capolongo said they very nearly had a collision before they managed to maneuver over to the shoulder of the freeway.
His 2009 Jetta had 623 miles on it at the time. Toler's Jetta was even newer, with just 81 miles. She had had it for just two days.
Other VW drivers have posted videos of their close calls on YouTube. Many say the park, reverse, neutral and drive lights flash on and off like crazy when their transmission goes haywire.
They've even coined a name for it: "The flash of death."
"This is a classic safety hazard," said Clarence Ditlow of the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety. "It's a brand new vehicle. Consumers are being stranded on freeways. It's only a matter of time before we have consumers being killed."
Volkswagen says it has not received any reports of injuries or deaths.
Ditlow said it's one of the more alarming safety defects his group has seen.
"A typical transmission problem doesn't occur until a year or two into use," Ditlow said. "For a brand new vehicle to stop on you, when you scarcely get it home from the dealership, that's just out of the universe."
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's investigation includes about 50,000 vehicles in all:
Any 2008 or 2009 Volkswagen Jetta, Eos, GTI or R32 with a direct shift gearbox or "DSG" transmission.
Any 2008 or 2009 Audi A3, TT or TT Roadster with a Direct Shift Gearbox Transmission, which Audi calls the S-tronic transmission.
Volkswagen's recall is narrower, only affecting 13,500 vehicles, including:
Jettas, Jetta Sportwagens, GTIs and Eos vehicles equipped with the DSG transmission and built between September 2008 and August 2009.
Volkswagen says that includes mostly 2009 model year vehicles and a few 2010 model year vehicles.
Click here to read Volkswagen's press release.
About 2,500 Audi vehicles are subject to the recall, including:
Audi A3, TT and TT Roadster vehicles equipped with S-tronic transmissions and built between September 2008 and August 2009.
Audi says that means mostly 2009 model year vehicles plus a handful of 2010s. Additionally, Audi says 667 of the vehicles subject to the recall have not been sold to consumers yet, and will be inspected at dealerships.
Volkswagen and Audi are only recalling about a third of the vehicles the government is investigating and will replace faulty temperature sensors that may have been causing their transmissions to shut down.
These appear to be the vehicles that exhibited the flashing activity on the dashboard and then a total loss of power, with the engine shifting into neutral.
But that still leaves another 34,000 vehicles that seem to have a different problem, also related to the transmission.
NHTSA documents mention "lurching," "surging" and "delays in engaging gears." Drivers have reported that their cars then went into "limp home mode" rather than losing power altogether.
GMA asked Volkswagen what is causing that second set of symptoms, and VW said it may be related to the transmission's "mechatronic unit," which is the computer that controls the transmission.
Volkswagen said that issue is still under investigation and that it is cooperating fully with the NHTSA inquiry.
Lisa Toler let the dealership repair her transmission, but she's still uneasy, especially because she had four kids in her car when it stalled on the highway.
"My kids didn't wanna get in the car again after it was fixed," she said. "They're like, 'Is this car gonna break down on us?'"
Dennis Capolongo says some customers have complained online that their DSG transmissions failed again after Volkswagen fixed them. He says he will not be satisfied until he gets a full refund.
"As they were shaking our hands and handing us the keys, they knew," Capolongo said. "And that's what bothers me the most, that they sold us this car knowing that this car has such a defect." Click here to read the statement Volkswagen and Audi provided to "Good Morning America."