Kadarius Reid was returning to his Jonesboro home after work in July when the 2014 Kia Sorento he was driving began to shake. Reid pulled to the side of I-20. Within moments there was smoke, a loud “kaboom” and the car was engulfed in flames.
“He was in shock,” Reid’s wife, Danielle, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “He was standing outside the car…. He was saying, ‘God forbid if our kids were in there.’ He didn’t know how he would have been able to get to them in time.”
The Reids are among the 143 Kia and Hyundai car owners who have complained t0 federal officials after their vehicles suddenly — and without explanation — caught fire. An investigation by Channel 2 Action News and the AJC found that 40 percent of those cars were manufactured at Kia’s plant in Georgia, more than any other single plant. About 80 percent of the engines involved came from a separaye Hyundai factory in Alabama.
Federal officials are continuing to probe consumer complaints of spontaneous fires in certain Hyundai and Kia vehicles. But a non-profit consumer group is asking whether regulators have been aggressive enough. They point to a federal inspector general’s report earlier this year which cited flaws in regulators’ efforts to make various auto recalls stick.
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The Center for Auto Safety as pushed for a closer federal look at fires in Kia and Hyundai vehicles.
“Kia fires are a perfect example” of the flawed federal approach and “an attitude that suggests they’ll get to it when they get to it,” said Jason Levine, the organization’s executive director.
The center petitioned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to investigate complaints involving 2011 through 2014 models of the Kia Sorento and Optima as well as Hyundai Sonata and Santa Fe related to odd fires not tied to crashes and other evidence of burning in the vehicles. In July, the center expanded its call to include the Kia Soul for model years 2010 through 2015.
The center has cited about 200 fire complaints and as well as other reports of melted wires in the engine area, smoke and burning smells — “an extraordinary number of complaints” compared to the overall auto industry, Levine said.
According to the center, 23 complaints were from Georgia consumers and 10 of the instances involved fires, though no injuries or deaths were reported tied to the Georgia cases.
Here’s one example involving a 2011 Hyundai Sonata: the consumer said they were driving 60 miles per hour when the engine warning light went on intermittently. They heard a clicking sound, then black smoke poured into the vehicle. They drove to the side of the road and got out. “The vehicle engulfed in large flames. The engine detached to the ground.”
Sorentos and gas-only-powered Optimas are produced at Kia’s sprawling assembly plant in West Point, Ga., near the Alabama border. Some Hyundai Sante Fe vehicles also were built there, starting with the 2011 model year. Kia and Hyundai are affiliated companies.
The Georgia plant is considered an economic plum for the state economy, employing 2,700 people directly and helping to feed auto-related businesses around the state and region. Since beginning operations in 2009, crews at the plant had produced more than 2.4 million vehicles as of May of last year.
“Kia is proud of its strong safety record and the integrity of our products and all Kia vehicles sold in the United States meet or exceed all federal government vehicle safety standards,” a spokesman for the automaker wrote in an emailed statement.
Fires can be caused by a number of complex factors, according to the company. “When the result of any fire is due to a vehicle design issue, KMA (Kia Motors America) promptly notifies NHTSA and conducts a voluntary recall.”
A Hyundai spokesman wrote that, “The safety and security of our customers is Hyundai’s number one priority. Hyundai is working collaboratively with NHTSA and communicates with the agency regularly on all safety related issues.”
He pointed out that Hyundai has previously recalled more than a million Sonatas and Santa Fe Sports in 2015 and last year. And if “additional remedies are warranted for these vehicles, we will take action to ensure the safety of our customers.”
Regulators often stumble in their response to vehicle recalls by automakers, according to a report issued in July by the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation.
The federal process for monitoring recalls “lacks documentation and management controls, and does not ensure that remedies are reported completely and in a timely manner.” And it said, “Overall, inadequate controls and processes for verifying and collecting manufacturer-reported information have hindered NHTSA’s ability to oversee safety recall implementation.”
Levine of the Center for Auto Safety said the findings show “an asleep-at-the-switch safety agency.”
NHTSA said in July that it had received 402 complaints of fires involving all Kia and Hyundai vehicles and that most of those that didn’t involve a collision were covered by two investigations it has already had underway. While it hasn’t opened a separate new investigation, it said it is reviewing all non-collision fire complaints involving all Kia and Hyundai vehicles.
A NHTSA spokesman emailed that it cannot comment further on the open case.
The Reids are still trying to fathom what happened to their family vehicle, which they bought used from a Kia dealership two years ago.
Four months before the fire and explosion, while driving from New York to Georgia, the vehicle had started shaking with the family of five inside.
They pulled to the side of the interstate in South Carolina. A nearby Kia dealership said the vehicle was under recall and replaced the engine. Four months later, the shaking began again and this time culminated in a dangerous meltdown.
Kia and insurance paid for the family’s losses. The company said the exact cause of Reid family’s vehicle fire has not been determined.
“I don’t know how they test their cars,” Danielle Reid said. “I don’t know how they test the engines. But they need to restructure the whole testing process for their cars.”