2014 Hyundai Santa Fe
2014 Hyundai Santa Fe

A consumer watchdog group is pressing the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to investigate complaints of spontaneous fires, unrelated to crashes, in certain Kia and Hyundai vehicles.

The Center for Auto Safety (CAS) filed a formal petition with NHTSA on Tuesday. In it, the center pointed to an unusual number of consumer complaints about four models, all from model years 2011 to 2014: the Kia Optima sedan and Sorento SUV, and the Hyundai Sonata sedan and Santa Fe SUV. At least six people have been injured in the incidents, the center said.

The center found 120 complaints in the NHTSA database where consumers reported fires without a preceding collision. There were also 229 separate complaints of melted wires in the engine bays, smoke, or burning odors indicating potential fires, the center said. NHTSA should focus on instances where wiring harnesses interact with fender edges, it said.

Hyundai told Consumer Reports it's aware of the Center for Auto Safety petition and is reviewing it. It noted the number of reported fires in the subject vehicles is "extremely low."

"Hyundai actively evaluates potential safety concerns will all of its vehicles and acts swiftly to recall vehicles with safety-related defects," the company said in an emailed statement. "Should we, in close coordination with NHTSA, find that additional remedies in the U.S. are warranted for these vehicles, we will take immediate action."

Kia said in a statement issued late Tuesday it continuously evaluates its vehicles, and that all vehicles sold in the U.S. meet or exceed federal safety standards. The company said it will continue to work with NHTSA on all vehicle-safety matters, and it will report any safety defect within five days, as mandated by federal law.

In one of the complaints to NHTSA, a 2012 Hyundai Sonata owner in Matthews, N.C., reported walking back to his car in November 2013 after shopping, and finding the car engulfed in flames. The engine wiring harness, front bumper, intake manifold, and all the plastic fluid containers were destroyed. A fire investigator said an electrical short in the wiring harness traveled throughout the engine compartment and ignited a pile of leaves under the car.

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Many auto manufacturers occasionally produce vehicles that catch fire, even when not involved in a collision, says Jason Levine, CAS executive director. The Kia and Hyundai models in the petition show far more complaints than similar vehicles manufactured at the same time, he says.

“There is enough of a statistical disparity to suggest a systemic issue that NHTSA must investigate and seek a repair remedy as soon as possible,” Levine says.

The Kia Sorento and Optima, and Hyundai Santa Fe were all produced at the same factory in West Point, Ga., according to the petition. The Hyundai Sonata sedans were made at a plant in Montgomery, Ala., it said. Hyundai and Kia are run as separate business units, but they share a corporate parent, and in many cases their cars share parts, design, and engineering.

NHTSA is required to respond to a petition for a defect investigation within 120 days, according to the center. The agency said it would “review the petition and take appropriate action if warranted.” 

2014 Kia Sorento
2014 Kia Sorento

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to include comments from Hyundai and Kia.