Sudden fires in Kias, Hyundais require congressional intervention, consumer group says
The sleek Hyundai Sonata was cruising westbound on the 405 when the driver suddenly smelled gasoline. Soon, dark smoke swirled from the hood.
The driver, from Pico Rivera, took the next exit. “Get out!” screamed another driver passing in the opposite direction. The driver leapt out and, within minutes, the Sonata was shrouded in smoke — and then exploded.
People poured out from surrounding businesses to see if the driver was hurt, and a rattled flower shop owner called the fire department, which rushed to douse the flames, said a complaint filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The harrowing incident on Sept. 2, 2016, was just one of some 300 spontaneous fires in Kia and Hyundai vehicles reported to the NHTSA and the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety since 2010 — the overwhelming majority of them since 2016.
On Thursday, Feb. 28, Kia Motors Corp. and affiliate Hyundai Motor Co. announced the recall of another half-million vehicles at risk for engine fires and other ills.
That move came on the heels of the Center on Auto Safety’s demand that Congress take action, because the manufacturers and regulators haven’t solved the problems.
At least 18 injuries have been linked to the fires, including third-degree leg burns suffered by a Sacramento driver bolting from a flaming Kia Optima, and a Covina driver whose brakes failed as flames engulfed his Kia Sorento. He jumped from the moving vehicle as it gained speed rolling off the highway.
In California — home to North American headquarters for both Kia and Hyundai, which are both based in Orange County — 28 fires and those two injuries have been reported. The Kia Soul has been linked to one death in Ohio in 2017.
“Car fires can be deadly or cause serious injuries. Even in circumstances where luck provides victims a path to safety, car fires cause significant property damage, often leaving consumers owing money for a vehicle which has literally been burned to a crisp,” said Jason Levine, executive director of the Center on Auto Safety in the letter to U.S. senators and House members on Wednesday, Feb. 27.
“Instead of presenting the public a solution for these fires, or a satisfactory explanation, or simply taking responsibility for continuing to sell what appear to be defective engines, both manufacturers have recalled fewer than 10 percent of the potential fire-prone vehicles and hoped no one would ask about the rest,” he wrote.
A South Korean whistleblower brought safety concerns to the NHTSA in 2016. The agency has been probing the timeliness of Kia and Hyundai’s U.S. recalls and whether they cover enough vehicles.
“These companies are imitating ostriches,” he wrote. “In the interest of the safety of those who drive these Kia and Hyundai vehicles and those who share the road with them, we urge this Congress to investigate why these manufacturers have refused to address this problem and why the agency responsible for overseeing highway and traffic safety has allowed such continued malfeasance.”
The new recalls include 379,000 Kia Souls (model years 2012-2016), and 155,000 Hyundai Tucson (2011-2013), Kia Sportage (2011-2012) and Kia Sedona (2015-18) vehicles with possible oil pan leak and other issues.
Kia and Hyundai share a corporate parent, and their cars often share parts and engineering. The companies dispute Levine’s characterization of their actions.
“Nothing is more important than the safety and security of Hyundai customers, and we find it irresponsible that the Center for Auto Safety has chosen to ignore the facts,” said an emailed statement from Hyundai.
The company recalled cars in 2015, 2017 and twice so far this year in an effort to remedy problems, the statement said. It launched an online resource for consumers at www.HyundaiEngineInfo.com and developed a new engine-monitoring technology that can flag the precursors to engine failure.
Also, as part of its product improvement campaign, Hyundai extended the warranty to 10 years and 120,000 miles (up from 100,000 miles) for original and subsequent owners of 2011-2018 Sonatas, 2013-2018 Santa Fe Sports and 2014-2015 and 2018 Tucsons for engine repairs needed because of excessive connecting rod bearing damage. There also is a special customer service line for noncollision fires at 855-671-3059.
Kia’s statement echoed Hyundai’s, calling the center irresponsible, stressing earlier recalls and its cooperation with government probes.
“To gain a full understanding of this industry-wide concern, last November we respectfully requested the Senate Commerce Committee consider a more comprehensive review of non-collision fires among all automakers,” Kia said in a statement.
Kia always encourages customers to remedy open recalls as quickly as possible. More information is at www.kia.com/us/en/content/owners/safety-recall, at www.safercar.gov, or via Kia Consumer Affairs at 800-333-4542.
3,000 claims for fires
The Center for Auto Safety implored Hyundai and Kia to do a full recall of all 2011-2014 Kia Sorento, Kia Optima, Hyundai Sonata and Hyundai Santa Fe vehicles, as well as 2010-2015 Kia Souls.
More than 300 “noncollision” fires were reported in just these five makes and models — far out of proportion with similar vehicles made during the same period, it said.
A study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s Loss Data Institute found that there are more than 13 million of these vehicles on America’s roads, and that more than 3,000 claims have been made to insurance companies for noncollision fires.
“The risk of noncrash fires also appears to increase as the vehicles age,” the study said.
Fire claims also were much more frequent — 36 percent higher — in Hyundai/Kia vehicles equipped with turbocharged engines, the institute found.
A turbocharged engine uses recycled exhaust gases to increase power, and typically require additional cooling components to manage the distribution of heat within the engine. That adds parts and complexity, and can increase the potential for failure, it said.
Kia and Hyundai have done several recalls since 2015 — but not widely enough — and they haven’t yet fixed the problems, Levine said.
- In September 2015, Hyundai recalled 470,000 Sonatas, model years 2011 and 2012, to address catastrophic engine failure concerns.
- In March 2017, Hyundai and Kia added 1.1 million vehicles in two recalls, also over catastrophic engine failure concerns. The defect caused debris to spew around the engine block, resulting in prematurely worn bearings, engine seizures or thrown rods, according to documents. Fire and smoke were not mentioned.
Fires, however, continued.
- On Dec. 19, Kia submitted paperwork to NHTSA recalling 68,000 vehicles due to fire risk — but that was a re-recall, representing only 4 percent of the vehicles the Center for Auto Safety said needed attention. It focused exclusively on the vehicles that were recalled in 2017 for the engine debris issue, and that had the engine replaced (the 2011-2014 Optima, 2012-2014 Sorento and 2011-2013 Sportage). On Jan. 11, Kia announced the limited recall to the public, along with a “product improvement campaign” for more than 1.6 million other vehicles (2011-2018 Optima, 2012-2018 Sorento, and 2011-2018 Sportage).
- On Dec. 28, Hyundai notified NHTSA it would recall 100,000 vehicles for essentially the same reasons (2013-2014 Santa Fe and 2011-2014 Sonata). It represented just 8 percent of the vehicles the center said needed recalling. Hyundai also announced the recall publicly on Jan. 11.
The “public improvement campaigns” involve a software update and installation of a sensor to detect engine knocking — often a precursor to the spewing debris that has led to fires, the center said. If that sensor detects knocking, it shifts the vehicle into “Limp Home Mode,” which immediately reduces speed and revolutions per minute.
“This ‘product improvement campaign’ is not a recall in name or substance,” the center said in its letter to Congress. “Most importantly, it does not attempt to address the problem of these vehicles. … All it does is place a sensor in vehicles that are in danger of catching on fire and then put them back on the road in the hopes that by having the vehicle ‘Limp Home’ it will not catch on fire.”
The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation will be watching closely.
“The Center’s letter highlights concerning issues and we intend to conduct rigorous oversight of NHTSA to ensure drivers and passengers are protected, something this Committee failed to do over the last eight years under Republican leadership,” said an emailed statement from a committee spokesman.