DETROIT – Kia says it will ignore the partial U.S. government shutdown and recall more than 68,000 vehicles to fix a fuel pipe problem that can cause engine fires. The problem stems from previous recall repairs due to engine failures.
The Korean automaker also says it will do a "product improvement campaign" to install sensors in 1.7 million U.S. vehicles that will alert drivers to possible engine failures and send the cars into a reduced-speed "limp" mode if problems are detected.
Kia confirmed the recall and improvement campaign in statements issued Wednesday after The Associated Press found in Canadian government records that the recall is being done in that country. Hyundai, a larger affiliate of Kia that uses the same engines and also has had failure problems, said it will take similar actions.
Both Hyundai and Kia have been dogged by fire and engine failure complaints from across the nation. They're under investigation by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which oversees recalls. But the agency is mostly closed because of the shutdown.
NHTSA employees who do safety investigations and recall notifications are not at work. Under normal circumstances, the agency would have reviewed the Kia recall to make sure it was adequate and posted details on its website. It also would monitor notices to customers, and make sure customers could check to see if their vehicles are included.
Kia spokesman James Bell said the company is proceeding with the recall and improvement campaign regardless of government delays.
"Making our customers comfortable is vastly more important than making sure we're following additional government processes right now," he said. Kia sent letters to dealers around Jan. 10 notifying them of the recall, he said.
But a U.S. auto safety advocate called Kia's measures inadequate and said the product improvement campaign should instead be a recall that is overseen by NHTSA.
A NHTSA spokeswoman said she could not comment due to the shutdown.
Hyundai and Kia started recalling 1.7 million vehicles in 2015 - about 618,000 of which are Kias - because manufacturing debris can restrict oil flow to connecting rod bearings. That can cause bearings in 2-liter and 2.4-liter four-cylinder engines to wear and fail and also lead to fires. The repair is an expensive engine block replacement.
Now Kia is acknowledging that the engine replacements "may not have been properly performed in all cases by Kia dealers," according to a company statement issued Wednesday but dated Jan. 11. The high pressure fuel pipe may have been damaged, misaligned or improperly tightened while the engines were being replaced, the statement said. That can allow fuel to leak and hit hot engine parts, causing fires.
Kia is only doing the fix on 68,000 of its 618,000 vehicles. Bell said he would check to see why the rest aren't being recalled.
The fuel injector pipe recall covers some 2011 through 2014 Optima cars, 2012 through 2014 Sorrento SUVs, and 2011 through 2013 Sportage SUVs, all with 2-liter and 2.4-liter four-cylinder engines.
The company says owners of the recalled vehicles will be notified by letter.
Jason Levine, executive director of the nonprofit Center For Auto Safety, said Kia limited the latest recall to a relatively small number of vehicles without adequate explanation, raising more questions than answers. He said some consumers have complained of fires in vehicles that weren't included in the engine repair recalls.
He also raised concerns about the government shutdown's impact on NHTSA, which he said should be open to handle critical safety recalls.
"This is the exact scenario where you should have safety and enforcement people coming in and doing their jobs," he said.
The last recall posted on NHTSA's website was dated Dec. 19, three days before the shutdown began. The agency said it a statement that it "may recall furloughed employees if NHTSA becomes aware of information concerning suspended functions that involve imminent threats to the safety of human life or protection of property."