As Hyundai Motor America Co. celebrates its 42% increase in U.S. sales last year, fueled in part by a growing reputation for reliability, the company quietly has been replacing defective engines in early models of its Santa Fe sport-utility vehicle.
Revelation of the problem--which involved engine failure, sometimes at highway speeds--has safety advocates again questioning how auto makers and government regulators define safety issues. The situation was first reported Tuesday by the Orange County Register.
A spokesman at the Fountain Valley-based U.S. arm of Hyundai Motor Co. of South Korea said Tuesday that the failures do not represent a safety issue and that the company is not required to launch a recall or even notify the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of the problem.
But a car stalling on the freeway "definitely can be a safety issue," said Sacramento safety advocate Rosemary Shahan.
The Hyundai engine failures "definitely should trigger action" by NHTSA, said Joan Claybrook, director of Public Citizen and a former NHTSA administrator.
NHTSA, criticized by the Transportation Department in a report to Congress this morning alleging inconsistent safety investigations, has sent mixed messages.
It held as far back as 1977, in a case involving a recall of Plymouth Volares, that unexpected loss of power in a moving vehicle is a safety issue. But the agency during the 1990s did not order a recall of millions of Ford Motor Co. vehicles outfitted with a faulty ignition module that caused stalling and occasionally fires.
Auto safety has been a hot topic since discovery in 2000 that several styles of Firestone tires, predominately those on the Ford Explorer, were losing their treads and causing thousands of accidents and hundreds of deaths and injuries. Angered by Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.'s initial refusal to order a recall, Congress passed tough safety legislation that made it a federal crime for an auto maker to knowingly withhold information about defects from regulators when those defects could cause death or injury.
No accidents or injuries have been reported in the Hyundai matter; the company says it believes the small number of incidents does not represent a safety issue.
Hyundai has replaced 290 of about 7,000 engines that were built before a flaw was discovered and a new design substituted. Hyundai says the flaw was found in 2.7-liter V-6 engines built from March through November 2000 and put in 2001 model year Santa Fe SUVs sold in the U.S. from September through December 2000. Though the firm is replacing failed engines under warranty, it is not recalling vehicles or notifying owners of the potential problem.