PALM BAY, Fla. – On a Sunday morning last September, Heriberto Vega was getting ready to go church when his wife told him she thought she smelled smoke somewhere in the house. After searching for a minute or so, Vega found the source.
“I saw smoke coming out of the door that leads from my living room to the garage,” he said. “I opened the door and my car was in flames.”
The engine bay of the Vega’s 2008 Kia Sorento was on fire.
While his wife called 911, Vega grabbed two garden hoses and tried to quell the flames.
Palm Bay firefighters were at the home within minutes. They put out most of the fire, pushed the SUV out of the garage, and cut the hood in half to pry it open and make sure the flames were completely extinguished.
“Yeah I was scared,” Vega said. “I didn't know anything about a car burning up so I thought it was going to blow up.”
Vega’s story is unusual, but not unique because the same thing happened to Mark King.
In July, King’s 2011 Kia Sorento also caught fire in his garage.
“It was just a blazing inferno,” King told Austin, Texas CBS affiliate KEYE. “My jaw was dropped. I literally was like, ‘What is going on?’”
What is going on is vehicle owners, politicians, and consumer advocacy groups all think there are serious problems with certain Kia and Hyundai models.
Kia and Hyundai are the biggest South Korea-based automakers in the U.S. and as sister companies, they share many common components used in their vehicles.
“In May, we started noticing reports of a significant number of Kias and Hyundais catching on fire in what we call a non-collision fire,” said Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, an independent consumer watchdog.
“We started getting reports of this on Sonatas and Santa Fes and Sorentos and Optimas and we said there’s a pattern here, something serious is going on,” Levine said.
According to a spokesperson from the Senate Commerce Committee, since 2014, the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration has received 563 complaints about collision and non-collision fires with both Kias and Hyundais. Of those 563 complaints, more than one-tenth of them, 62, come from Florida.
“The administrative agency in the Trump administration is slow-walking this,” said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL).
Nelson, the highest ranking Democrat on the Commerce Committee, has scheduled a hearing for Nov. 14 to address the rash of fires and has asked the CEOs of both Kia and Hyundai to appear.
“What we'll get is a lot of platitudes but we won’t let them get away with that,” Nelson told News 6. “We’ve already had one death in the country as a result, a person burned up.”
That death involved 48-year-old Keith Nash of Ohio. Nash died when his mother’s 2014 Kia Soul burst into flames last year as he was using her car to run an errand because she was sick and in bed.
“We will drill in and eventually we will force them to find the cause and to fix it,” Nelson said.
On June 11, CAS filed a formal petition with NHTSA to “initiate a safety defect investigation” with certain models of Kias and Hyundais. The initial petition targeted four different models made at two different U.S. Kia and Hyundai factories.
From Kia’s West Point Georgia Factory, CAS was petitioning for a recall of all 2011-2014 Kia Optima sedans and all 2011-2104 Kia Sorento SUVs.
From Hyundai’s Montgomery Alabama Factory, CAS wanted a recall of all 2011-2014 Hyundai Sonata sedans and all 2011-2014 Hyundai Santa Fe SUVs.
A month after filing the petition, CAS added a fifth model: all 2010-2015 Kia Souls made in South Korea at Kia’s Gwangju factory.
“We are receiving almost one report every day between when we asked them to look into this and Oct. 12,” Levine said.
In 2017, both Kia and Hyundai issued engine recalls for about 1.2 million vehicles for what they called “manufacturing debris” that “restricted oil flow.” The 2017 recall followed a 2015 recall by Hyundai for engine debris; that recall covered almost 500,000 cars.
But even after the recalls, Levine and the CAS still have doubts.
“This is what we're concerned about: They open an investigation into engine defects and there was some debris that was floating around in these engines that was causing engines to fail,” Levine said. “That's obviously bad. However it wasn't about fire. And so both Kia and Hyundai and NHTSA took to a certain extent pointed to this previous investigation saying ‘Hey we really looked at this, it's engine debris.’ That's the problem here. Well if it is, we'd like to see the recall expand from a million vehicles to 3 million vehicles. If it's not, which we don't think it actually is, we need a separate investigation and a separate recall.”
A Hyundai spokesperson told News 6 they actively monitor and evaluate potential safety concerns, including non-collision fires, with all of its vehicles and act swiftly to recall any vehicles with safety-related defects.
“In the rare case of a fire that results from a potential product defect, Hyundai takes immediate action to have the vehicle inspected,” said Michael Stewart with Hyundai Motor America.
Hyundai has also launched an online resource for the recalls, www.HyundaiEngineInfo.com, where customers can learn more about the recall condition, what indications and signs to look for in their vehicle, and what steps they should take so we can fix the condition at no cost.
Customers who have any question or concern with their Hyundai vehicle are urged to contact the Hyundai Customer Care Center at www.hyundaiusa.com/contact-us.aspx, 800-633-5151 or email@example.com.
A Kia spokesperson sent this response to News 6 addressing the car fire question:
Kia Motors America (KMA) shares the goal of the Senate Commerce Committee to assure the safety of the vehicles we sell to our customers and which are driven on American roads. Kia will continue to voluntarily cooperate with the Committee – and the federal agency with primary jurisdiction over vehicle safety: NHTSA – and is in the process of responding to its recent inquiries regarding vehicle fires.
KMA is also working cooperatively to provide NHTSA with data regarding the safety performance of all Kia vehicles, including concerns about vehicle fires, and is committed to providing this relevant information in a timely manner and to use this information to develop a data driven analysis of Kia vehicle safety.
“We’d like to see a little more urgency out of NHTSA,” Levine said. “We’d like even more urgency out of Kia and Hyundai.”
Urgency at this point that is too little too late for Vega, who says engine failure may be one thing, but what’s Kia’s excuse for a car catching fire that’s been parked for two days?
“I never expected this to happen because it just happened for the car sitting there,” Vega said. “Nobody turned it on, it just took fire.”
After News 6 reached out to Kia, the company initiated an investigation into Vega’s Sorento fire. The result:
“Based on the findings of a 3rd party investigator, the cause of the incident was undetermined. Although the exact cause of the vehicle fire was not determined, KMA has reached an agreed upon settlement with the customer and is taking possession of the vehicle to continue its investigation.”
That settlement netted Vega an extra $200 from Kia, not even enough to cover his $250 deductible from his insurance payout.
“I recommend nobody park their Kias in a garage,” Vega said. “Keep the Kia out of your garage.”