Ford should come clean and tell us why its cars are catching fire

THE PROBLEM

“I’m scared to drive.”

This was  the fear expressed  by one Limpopo resident, Makgamatha Malehotlo, and with good reason. You see, over the past 15 months there have been strange things happening with Ford cars, and I’m not talking about the installation of a 4-cylinder turbo engine in the Mustang muscle car. There have been fires, and Malehotlo happened to have been caught up in one, along with her friend and two children.

Fiery and flammable Fords are not exactly nes since the days of exploding Pintos back in the ’70s. And slightly more than a year ago,  I reported how an Australian auto journalist found himself starring in his own automotive roadside barbecue courtesy of a Ford Everest demonstrator vehicle he was testing. While both these examples might be far from us in distance and time, the flames are now burning much closer home. The new victim is the Ford Kuga.

Lastly, Fords aside, the need for an efficient cooling system cannot be gainsaid. This debacle has blatantly shown us that overheating an engine can have effects more far-reaching than a blown gasket or a burst hose, more so in the current hot weather. The need for proper cooling is even more crucial to turbocharged engines such as Ford’s own Ecoboost: my own experience is the twin turbo that currently does duty under my bonnet quickly reaches furnace levels within minutes of initiating operation, and a failing water pump or insufficient coolant can spell disaster.

Initial reports from Mzansi indicate that there have been at least 48 incidents of Kuga fires in the past 15 months. After an extended period of burying their heads in the sand and wishing the problem would go away, Ford of South Africa says they can “confirm” only 39 cases. Other news outlets say they could be as many as 56, with one incident in Botswana and another in Swaziland.

Related Content

Whatever the number, it is obvious that there is a big problem and the inevitable safety recall was only par for the course, especially given that these fire incidents have led to at least one death. That is serious. How many incidents does it take before a TSB or a full safety recall programme is initiated?

THE AFFECTED

There is a very specific model of car affected by these fires and that is the Kuga mini-crossover with the 1.6 litre Ecoboost petrol engine manufactured in Spain between December 2012 and February 2014, and sold in South Africa. That places the total number of cars affected at exactly 4,556, all of which are now the subject of what could eventually be a much bigger recall. These vehicles can be identified by VIN at dealership level, though official word is that only vehicles sold initially in South Africa are part of this – anything that was imported into the country is not affected.

It doesn’t end there. Reports indicate that the 1.5 litre car might be affected too, which is what Ms Malehotlo was driving when she got the biggest scare of her life, but Ford denies this and told her to follow it up with insurance. Sound familiar? It should. That is exactly what happened in Australia. Others allege that the 2.5 litre car is not immune from fires either, and that one complaint specifies a 2015 model car as being affected too. As I write this, a Ford Figo hatchback reportedly also  also caught fire in a Nelspruit hospital parking lot.

Ford insists that the 1.6 litre Ecoboost is the  errant model and had earlier promised to send a sample number of the affected vehicles to Europe for investigations into the cause of the fires.

THE CAUSE

Ford PR put their foot in it by at first blaming the prevailing hot weather for the fires, which is a silly move to be honest because the immediate questions that follow are: “Are your cars not tested during R&D before being released to the public? What is this, TVR? How will Kugas operate in climates with much higher temperatures?”

There was a more solid explanation that came later: that a flaw in the cooling system design leads to the vehicle overheating, which in turn causes a crack in the cylinder head. The crack results in an oil leak and if (or when) this oil leak comes in contact with the exhaust manifold, a fire is more than likely.

There are more questions here too. Back when the Ford Figo was launched in Kenya, I bemoaned the scantiness of information available from the instrument cluster. One of the missing dials was a temperature gauge, and from the high number of Kuga fires and the attendant explanation, it seems that either the Kuga, too, has no gauge or Kuga drivers don’t check their instruments, which warrants a return to driving school to acquire such rudimentary prerequisite skills as being aware of what is going on in your engine bay in real time. This is because by the time the cylinder head fails from overheating, the car will have been running extremely hot for quite a while.

There should be more ways of noticing an overheating engine other than your own car bursting into flames. So what exactly is the problem?

Ford already admits to having an imperfect cooling system, which is what will be repaired during the recall, but is the cylinder head also part of the problem? As stated earlier, 50 is not an insignificant number, and of all 50 or so drivers, surely at least a few would have noticed their cars running hotter than usual? To make matters worse, in about three cases, we have claims where the drivers took their vehicles to dealerships (under warranty?) for confirmation that everything was fine, only for them to have their vehicles burn to the ground shortly afterwards.

THE OUTCOME

Can you say disaster*? It is a right mess. The bereaved family from the lone fatality in this fiasco has promised not to relent in their fight for closure and to “guarantee the safety of other families”, and their case is drawing a lot of attention. They say that the subsequent recall is just the first step in what will eventually be a lengthy and unforgettable lesson for the American car maker.

There is a dedicated Facebook page for this as well, dubbed “Ford vehicles burning” but the tag line is equal parts witty and brutally upfront: “@ford.kuga.on.fire”. As of the time of writing, it had racked up a massive 132,000-odd likes, with an equal number of followers. That is not small by any standard.

The contents of this page are heartbreaking, as they reveal the extent of Ford’s folly in their handling (or lack thereof) of this issue.

First was the delay in reacting to the rising numbers of Kuga fires, which was bad enough. But on trawling the page, one sees news snippets about dealers deliberately undervaluing Kuga cars on trade-ins or flat out refusing to replace. This has then resulted in various publications declaring the Kuga currently worthless in South Africa. Trade-in offers currently hover at around 40 per cent of book value for vehicles with less than 50,000km mileage, which is as insane as it is unfair. Worse yet are dealers telling clients outright that if they want another car they will either have to pay for it or trade it in with any car other that is not a Ford Kuga.

Also under fire (pun not intended) is Jeff Nemeth, Ford CEO  for Middle East and Africa, who made the misstep of engaging the bereaved family** (see notes) of  Reshall Jimmy alongside the company spokesman, Rella Bernades, in a cringe-worthy back-and-forth about whether or not the fire that ended Jimmy’s life was a direct result of the cooling system flaw. This is strange in that Ford South Africa claims they “recognise” only 39 fire incidents involving the Ford Kuga. There were 39 reported incidents between Jimmy’s death in December 2015 and the moment Ford made the recall official. Who is fooling who? There is also a video of the incident showing the fire originating under the bonnet of Jimmy’s car. This whole situation stinks, and not just of smoke.

To add to the stench are the incipient threats of a class action lawsuit. The penalties will be financially painful if the class action succeeds; and all the signs of a massive payout are there. This includes fresh evidence that they did, in fact, know something about the susceptibility of the vehicle in question to unforeseen conflagrations being more than incipient, seeing how the Ford Escape, which is a rebadged version of the Kuga, had undergone another recall*** (see notes) not too long ago following the possibility of fires as a result of fuel leaks in the engine compartment. Insurance companies also allege they had issued warnings to Ford about the Kuga as far back as 2014.

And what do they do? Deny, deny, deny.

THE FIX

The repair process sounds insanely simple for what is quickly becoming Ford’s biggest PR disaster in Africa. The essence of the fix is to change the coolant bottle and pipes as well as the fluid dynamics of the cooling system, particularly how the coolant returns to its reservoir.

The idea is to blank off one pipe from the coolant bottle to act as pressure relief, which prevents the coolant bottle from cracking under the attendant pressure of high temperature operation, which in turn prevents the overheating that allegedly leads to the fires via the cracked cylinder head and oil leaks.

The original layout was, one hose led directly to the cylinder head from the coolant bottle while another led to the cooling system. The difference with the fix is that post-recall, the hose that feeds off the cylinder head will be closed off, with the remaining one being split to feed the cooling system and then the cylinder head. There will be no direct connection to the cylinder head. Projections are the fix on all affected vehicles should be complete by end of February.

Initial reports from Mzansi indicate that there have been at least 48 incidents of Kuga fires in the past 15 months. After an extended period of burying their heads in the sand and wishing the problem would go away, Ford of South Africa say they can confirm only 39 cases. Other news outlets say they could be as many as 56.”

WHY THIS IS IMPORTANT

Keen followers of this column probably know I visit South Africa several times a year to test new cars. This is because both markets (East and South Africa) share products in terms of brand and spec and most car models will be released first down south before we get them here. Ford Kenya sells the Kuga, or at least they used to. If the 1.6 Ecoboost is part of the lineup, perhaps they should let us know at least those are not part of the Spanish-built 4,556 stock, and that they will never catch fire unless intentionally set aflame? Have any of the 4,556 cars been exported to East Africa?

Another question why  the matter is coming to the fore right now, almost three years after the last of the errant vehicles was manufactured and more than a year after the fires started. Why did it take so long to respond? FoMoCo does not have a good history with either fires or class action lawsuits; it behooves them to be more circumspect in the face of such situations lest they find themselves tossed into the unpleasant annals of the legal system that is the tort.

The 1.6 litre Ecoboost is a modular engine available in two levels of tune: 160hp and 180hp, both of which see duty in a variety of cars from the ill-fated Kuga, to the Focus and Fiesta hatchbacks all the way to a number of Volvos (V40, S/V60, S80, V70 etc). Do these cars have a different cooling system design or are they, too, disasters-in-waiting?

Lastly, Fords aside, the need for an efficient cooling system cannot be gainsaid. This debacle has blatantly shown us that overheating an engine can have effects more far-reaching than a blown gasket or a burst hose, more so in the current hot weather. The need for proper cooling is even more crucial to turbocharged engines such as Ford’s own Ecoboost: my own experience is the twin turbo that currently does duty under my bonnet quickly reaches furnace levels within minutes of initiating operation, and a failing water pump or insufficient coolant can spell disaster.

Comments

comments

Leave a Reply