DETROIT — General Motors’ top executive apologized for deaths linked to the delayed recall of 1.6 million small cars, saying the company took too long to tell owners to bring the cars in for repairs.
Faced with a crisis just months into the job, chief executive Mary Barra has put herself front and center in GM’s efforts to take responsibility for mishandling a defect with ignition switches and to ward off a threat to its sales and reputation.
One day after telling employees that GM is pushing to resolve safety issues more quickly, she named a head of global safety, Jeff Boyer, a veteran company engineer.
Barra, who met Tuesday with reporters for the first time since last month’s recall, stopped short of saying GM would compensate families of those killed in crashes caused by faulty ignition switches. But she said GM would do what’s right after it completes an internal investigation, which she expects to take about seven months.
‘‘I am very sorry for the loss of life that occurred, and we will take every step to make sure this never happens again,’’ she said.
Barra is trying to distance the GM she runs from a pre-bankruptcy company that appeared to bury the problem in bureaucracy. The company has acknowledged it learned about the problem switches at least 11 years ago, yet did not recall cars until last month.
Barra is expected to testify next month before two congressional committees; she’s sure to face questions about what went wrong.
The Justice Department is also investigating whether any laws were broken.
Barra, who became chief executive Jan. 15, said she found out about the switch problem in late December, about a month before the recall was issued.
David Cole, former head of the Center for Automotive Research and the son of a former GM president, said it was the first time in his memory that a GM chief executive has apologized for a safety problem. But the magnitude of the recall is also rare, he said.
‘‘I think Mary will be extremely forthright. She won’t be blowing smoke at anybody. That’s not her style,’’ he said.
GM has to protect its reputation to keep profit from slipping. It has been profitable for 16 straight quarters since emerging from bankruptcy protection in 2009.
Barra said no one at GM has been fired or disciplined because of the recall delays, but Mark Reuss, the company’s product development chief, said appointing a safety chief is only the beginning.
‘‘This is the first change of things that need to change,’’ Reuss said.
Some questions Barra and Reuss would not answer: why was the recall delayed, how high in the company did the information reach, why were there communication breakdowns. They said they’d wait for results of the investigation by an outside attorney.
Barra said GM is looking through its database for more crash deaths that could be tied to the ignition switch problem. That number is likely to rise above 12 as GM and the US government review accident reports.