Federal government opens probes into mysterious fires in Kia and Hyundai vehicles
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has opened formal investigations into spontaneous fires in thousands of Kia and Hyundai vehicles that have resulted in more than 100 injuries and one death.
After much prodding, the NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation announced Monday it has launched two separate probes to nail down the whys and hows of the mysterious fires.
Drivers report eerily similar experiences of tooling along at 60 mph when they hear an abnormal banging noise, lose power, and watch with horror as black smoke and flames pour from under the hood. That happened to a driver in West Hollywood, whose Kia Optima hybrid was totaled, and to a couple in Big Bear who learned their Optima’s turbocharger “was glowing red hot like lava.”
Variations on the theme have befallen Hyundai and Kia drivers in San Clemente, Pico Rivera, Corona, Santa Ana, Chino Hills, Rialto, Norco, Tracy, Sunnyvale, Eureka, San Jose, Taft and hundreds of other cities across America, according to complaints to the NHTSA and the Center for Auto Safety.
Officials have logged 3,125 reports of similar fires in the cars, according to the NHTSA.
The automakers — both with North American headquarters in Orange County — have recalled more than 1 million cars in the wake of unexplained fires. The latest probes involve about 3 million vehicles, so more recalls may be on the way.
The action is a victory for the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety, which last June asked the NHTSA to investigate the fires and take firmer action to protect the driving public.
“It is long past time for the full power of the federal government to be brought to bear to answer why so many thousands of Kia and Hyundai vehicles have been involved in noncrash fires,” said Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, in a statement.
“Hopefully, this step will quickly lead to a recall being issued as soon as possible. The reality is that extended investigations do not protect Kia and Hyundai owners — that requires recalls which result in effective repairs.”
What’s happening, exactly?
On Friday, March 29, the NHTSA announced two “preliminary evaluations,” or PEs.
The one involving Kia will “assess the scope, frequency, and potential safety-related consequences of alleged defects relating to noncollision vehicle fires in the 2011-2014 Kia Optima, 2011-2014 Kia Sorento, and 2010-2015 Kia Soul. While prior recalls of vehicles covered by this PE have primarily related to engine fires, NHTSA’s Preliminary Evaluation is not limited to engine components and may cover additional vehicle systems or components as well.”
The one involving Hyundai will address the same issues in 2011-2014 Sonatas and 2011-2014 Santa Fes.
The process works this way, according to the NHTSA:
When an investigation is opened, agency engineers conduct a preliminary evaluation and request information from the manufacturer, such as data on complaints, injuries, warranty claims, modifications, or parts sales. The manufacturer also has an opportunity to present its views regarding the alleged defect.
The preliminary evaluation leads NHTSA officials to either close the investigation or to move to the next step in the process — an engineering analysis. However, before that decision is made, the information gathered in the preliminary evaluation might convince the manufacturer to undertake a recall.
“The evidence is now clear — Hyundai and Kia should have acted to recall these vehicles far earlier,” said Levine of the Center for Auto Safety.
“We challenge Kia and Hyundai to use this moment to figure out what’s causing these fires instead of pretending these engine issues can be addressed with knock sensors and forcing cars into limp home mode. If they won’t — NHTSA must.”
Automakers: Safety top priority
“While Hyundai recognizes and has made substantial efforts to address engine issues in certain vehicles, it’s important to note that noncrash fires have been on the rise since 2011 across the automotive industry, according to the Highway Loss Data Institute,” Hyundai said in a statement.
In the two-year period that ended in November, Hyundai completed fire-related inspections on 428 vehicles — a tiny fraction of the 8.7 million vehicles it has on the road today, the company said. That means for every 1 million Hyundais on the road, 49 experienced a noncrash fire over the past two years.
“Hyundai is closely and continuously monitoring the field performance of our engines, has made numerous improvements to our engine manufacturing, and has enhanced our customer service efforts to address every single impacted customer,” the company’s statement said. “We are committed to providing American motorists with safe, high quality, efficient and affordable vehicles.”
Hyundai owners can check recalls at www.HyundaiEngineInfo.com.
Kia owners with questions or concerns are encouraged to call 800-333-4542.