The 2012 Kia Soul that went up in flames with Virginia teenager Bailey Belcher driving it earlier this year. His mother, Michelle Belcher, said in July that she was still on the hook for a large portion of the payments after the fire happened.
Screenshot: WTVR

A Virginia teenager driving his mother’s Kia Soul in July saw smoke and pulled over. He said the “whole car went up in flames” in about five minutes, burning to a shell of its former self. Hundreds of others reported similar, prompting an advocacy group to demand Hyundai and Kia recall 2.9 million vehicles.

The Center for Auto Safety, a national advocacy non-profit founded in part by Unsafe at Any Speed author Ralph Nader, has a strong hunch that fire in Virginia is part of a far bigger problem—one spanning five models and several years in the Hyundai and Kia lineups, and one that it claims Hyundai, Kia and the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have yet to do a recall on.

That’s why, in a press release Friday morning, the center called on Hyundai and Kia to recall all Sorento, Optima, Sonata, and Santa Fe models from the 2011 to 2014 model years and all Kia Souls from 2010 through 2015 for fire hazard. That makes nearly 2.9 million vehicles, and the release said between the center and the NHTSA, there have been more than 220 complaints of non-collision fires in these cars—almost one per day for the last four months, with some saying fires started while they were on the highway.

Kia has yet to respond to Jalopnik’s request for comment, but a spokesperson for Hyundai Motor America told Jalopnik the root of this issue has already been addressed and recalled. The “only defect trend causing non-collision fires,” the spokesperson said, is one Hyundai has already identified in two previous recalls: a 2015 recall on Sonatas from the 2011 and 2012 model years, and a 2017 recall on 2013 to 2014 Sonatas and Santa Fe Sports for similar issues.

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Both recalls said debris from the factory could restrict oil flow to the bearings, potentially causing high temperatures and stalled engines. The spokesperson said the company “continue[s] to work closely with NHTSA on the issue.” (As always, if you’re in the U.S., periodically check the NHTSA website to see if your car has a recall on it here. Then get your recall done.)

The Hyundai spokesperson also described the situation behind the Center for Auto Safety’s request as having “low rates of associated non-collision fires,” and had this to say about affected vehicles in its recalls from 2015 and 2017:

In some very rare instances – a rate of less than 1 percent – the affected engines have caught on fire. An exhaustive study has confirmed that there is no defect trend outside of that identified in the related recalls causing non-collision fires in Hyundai vehicles.

Hyundai is working collaboratively with NHTSA on these recalls, which to date have completion rates of 86 and 71 percent respectively, versus an industry average of 69 percent for recalled engines. Hyundai continues to make every effort to contact customers who have not had the recall completed, including through traditional mailings, digital correspondence, owner website alerts, and in-vehicle notification through Hyundai’s Blue Link telematics systems and its monthly vehicle health reports. [...]

Customers who have any concern with their Hyundai vehicle should contact the Hyundai Customer Connect Center at http://www.hyundaiusa.com/contact-us.aspx, (800) 633-5151 or consumeraffairs@hmausa.com.

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In a petition to the NHTSA in June, the center said at least 120 owners reported cars catching fire without any prior collision and that 229 reported “melted wires in the engine bay, smoke, and burning odors, indicating potential fires” and indicating that this trend seems to start in the engine bay. The center also said in at least a dozen complaints, owners said their car also had an engine-related recall done on it before it caught fire.

The center said in its release that the “number and severity of these complaints ... is frightening,” and that it’s “long past time for Kia and Hyundai to act” on them. From the press release:

Between June 12 and October 12, 2018, the Center learned of 103 additional fire reports, an 85% increase. [...]

“Based on the data collected to date, and these manufacturers’ inability, or unwillingness, to determine the cause of these fires on behalf of the hundreds of Kia and Hyundai customers who own cars which have burst into flames, the Center believes the additional remedy which is warranted is a full recall,” responded [executive director of the Center for Auto Safety Jason] Levine. [...]

“Unfortunately, most, if not all, auto manufacturers occasionally produce vehicles that catch fire, even when not involved in a collision. However, the volume of fires here make it appear that Hyundai and Kia are content to sit back and allow consumers, and insurers, to bear the brunt of poorly designed, manufactured, or repaired vehicles,” Levine continued. “There have been reports of these fires from across the country, including a death in Ohio in April 2017. Before there’s another tragedy, Kia and Hyundai must recall these vehicles, determine why they are catching on fire, and remedy the situation.”

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The center also said in its statement that “both manufacturers have provided unhelpful statements” in response to the reported fires so far. When asked for comment around the time of the Soul fire in Virginia, the NHTSA told Jalopnik: “The agency takes all potential safety defects seriously. NHTSA is reviewing the issue and will take appropriate action to protect the American public.”

When asked if there were any updates to the NHTSA’s investigation into the fires from the center’s June petition, an NHTSA spokesperson told Jalopnik on Friday that the petition remains under consideration. The investigation includes information requests sent to Hyundai, Kia and other manufacturers about the reported issue, which the NHTSA will then review to make its decision.

Models like the 2014 Sorento are listed as under “open investigation” for non-crash fires on the NHTSA website, and the NHTSA said once a final decision on the petition has been issued, “it will be submitted to the Federal Register.”

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As for the Soul fire in Virginia, the mother of the teenager driving the car said in July that she was still responsible for a large portion of the payments she had to make on the car, despite it being burned far past any level of usability.