Sean Heiney of Ann Arbor, Michigan was driving his 2010 Jeep Wrangler home when all of a sudden the brakes failed. Then his power steering went. Then he noticed smoke. Within a minute his car was surrounded by flames.
His was not the first late-model Jeep to catch fire, as a number of incidents of Wranglers experiencing massive system failures with no warning before bursting into flames have been reported to the Department of Transportation. Owners have also mentioned this issue on forums.
Heiney even claims he was offered more money than the value of his car — an amount Chrysler termed "generous" — in return for never discussing the matter publicly. So what's going on here?
"I was driving for about five minutes from a cold start near downtown — and it's unusually warm in Michigan so I wasn't running the A/C or anything — I was driving around 25-35 mph on a busy city street and the brakes failed — I noticed the light was turning yellow — I ran the red light because my brakes weren't stopping," Heiney explains.
"I thought my car stalled and I noticed the dash was still lit up," he says. "I see smoke coming up the dash and I see flames coming up the window."
Heiney was able to get the car off the road and bail before it was completed engulfed in flames. It took just a minute for the fire department to arrive but at that point it was too late.
Heiney's situation isn't unique.
The 2008-2010 Jeep Wrangler — part of the JK series of Wranglers — has the unfortunate distinction of being an American vehicle that was banned from import by the Chinese government over fires, an issue Chrysler says it resolved.
At the time, Chrysler said they were aware of the fire and said they issued a recall in February 2010 to deal with an issue where transmission fluid could overheat under "extreme and/or abusive driving conditions under rigorous off-road conditions."
Chrysler in their statement went on to say that "Outside of China, Chrysler Group is not aware of any vehicle fires related to this condition once the recall was completed."
Except reports of fires have continued. A search of the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration's (NHTSA) Office of Defect Investigations (ODI) going back to October 2010 — eight months after the recall — shows five reports of 2010 MY Jeep Wranglers experiencing fires similar to Heiney's.
One such report details the same sequence of events Heiney describes, specifically that mechanical systems failed but no fail lights turned on, followed by a fire.
2010 JEEP WRANGLER: ODI ID NUMBER: 10358879
A 2010 JEEP WRANGLER RUBICON CAUGHT ON FIRE ONLY 10,000 MILES. WE WERE RIDING DOWN THE ROAD AND THE ENGINE LOST POWER AND THE RPM'S WENT TO ZERO. THERE WAS NO CHECK ENGINES LIGHTS ON AND ALL THE GAUGES WERE FINE. WE PULLED OVER TO THE SIDE AND NOTICED THE SMOKE COMING FROM UNDER THE JEEP AND UNDER THE HOOD. THE FIRE DEPARTMENT SAID THEY THOUGHT IT WAS CAUSED BY A OVER HEATED TRANSMISSION AND MAYBE BACK THE FLUID UP TO THE EXHAUST WHICH IGNITED IT. THEY WERE NOT COMPLETELY SURE BECAUSE THE ENGINE WAS MELTED SO BADLY.
Beyond the ODI database there are also individuals on various websites who have reported similar issues. There's a long thread of an almost identical issue from late 2010 with a relatively new Wrangler over at the popular JeepForum.
After the incident occurred with Heiney he said he banged his head against the wall trying to get someone to answer him. He looked into the issue and discovered all the other customers with similar issues.
Eventually, he heard from Chrysler and says they offered to buy his Jeep back at full sale value plus some additional funds — but he'd have to sign a non-disclosure agreement. He refused, saying he demanded to know why this keeps happening and what Jeep planned to do about this.
"My insurance is going to cover the car," says Heiney. "I'm more concerned about these people fucking Jeep owners for years."
Heiney says he wants answers.
In a statement, Chrysler confirms that they did offer to buy back the vehicle and made a "very generous offer" but denies there are any issues with the vehicle.
Statement from Chrysler
Chrysler Group took prompt action to inspect this customer's vehicle, which is more than two years old with more than 25,000 miles of use at the time of the incident. Despite the age and mileage of this vehicle, and even though the root cause of the fire has not yet been determined, Chrysler Group made a fair and reasonable offer to resolve the matter in the interests of good faith customer service. Unfortunately, this customer has so far refused to accept our reasonable offer and the matter remains unresolved. We note that vehicle fires are very complex and can occur for a number of reasons that have nothing to do with the vehicle itself. Poor maintenance, improper vehicle use or improper installation of aftermarket equipment often are causes of vehicle fires. Indeed, the Jeep Wrangler has an excellent safety record over many years of operation in markets around the world.
As for why this issue seems so common among Jeep owners, Chrysler added that the abuse these vehicles take can lead to issues, as well as implying that improper maintenance can be involved.
We take all vehicle fires very seriously, investigate them promptly and are in regular communication with regulators about the real world safety performance of our products. We note that vehicle fires are very complex and can occur for a number of reasons that have nothing to do with the vehicle itself. Poor maintenance, improper vehicle use or improper installation of aftermarket equipment often are causes of vehicle fires.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is aware of the issues with the fires and has investigated Jeeps for fire-related issues in the past.
A spokesperson for NHTSA said they are "monitoring the issue closely and will take appropriate action as necessary."
Heiney hopes to make these fires more public so that Jeep owners and prospective Jeep buyers are aware.
"I was in a burning car and I was just real pissed off when I found out how expansive the problem was," says Heiney.