Honda SUV Fires Continue

Warning to Dealers Hasn’t Stopped Oil-Change Errors

By Greg SchneiderWashington
Post Staff WriterTuesday, September 7, 2004; Page E01

Owners
of new Honda CR-V sport-utility vehicles continue to report vehicle
fires shortly after initial oil changes, and a federal agency is
keeping an eye o­n the problem two months after closing an
investigation.

By
the end of last week, 20 people had reported fires o­n 2004-model CR-Vs
to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and another five
people had reported oil leaks and smoke. That’s up from five reports in
late June, shortly before the federal agency closed its
investigation.

Honda
Motor Co. identified another 22 such fires in 2003-model CR-Vs during
the government’s inquiry. No injuries have been linked to the fires,
but several of the reports detailed narrow escapes from vehicles that
often were destroyed by flames.

NHTSA investigators
are "aware of
the new complaints that have come in, they’ve been in communication
with Honda, and they are going to continue to monitor to see if Honda’s
efforts to communicate with the service departments has had the desired
effect," agency spokesman Rae Tyson said.

The company
said the
problem seems to stem from technicians, usually at dealerships,
improperly replacing oil filters during the first oil change. The
rubber gasket inside the rim of the car’s factory-installed oil filter
sometimes sticks to the engine block, and when a new filter is
installed over it, the stacked gaskets fail to seal properly. Oil leaks
out and sprays o­nto the car’s hot manifold, catching
fire.

What Honda hasn’t been able to explain is why
the 2003 and 2004 model CRVs would be especially prone to the problem.

In
mid-July, Honda sent letters to its dealerships pointing out the
potential problem and urging them to take care in changing oil filters,
Honda spokesman Andy Boyd said. The company also sent out notices o­n an
internal e-mail system and posted the topic o­n a Web site for Honda
owners.

Honda was unable to include a notice in a
quarterly
publication sent to independent service companies such as Pep Boys,
Boyd said, because the publication went to press before the decision
was made to address the problem. The next edition, out in October, will
carry the notice.

Boyd said the company believes the
information
campaign is making a difference. Since the notices went out to dealers
July 14, he said, Honda counted nine new incidents, none in the past 20
days, he said.

Those numbers do not match complaints
on file at
NHTSA, which show two new incidents in the past two weeks and eight
since July 14. But NHTSA does not provide enough information to
correlate its complaints with those received at Honda, Boyd said, so
there’s no way to know if they’re tracking the same
ones.

Still
unanswered is the question of why the CR-V seems prone to catch fire
from a simple oil leak. Boyd said the company is still investigating,
but that there has been no change in filters or engine design that
would readily explain the problem.

David Champion,
chief auto
tester for Consumer Reports, said he and his staff have looked at the
CR-Vs and come to no firm conclusion about the cause. It’s possible,
Champion said, that Honda has changed the type of paint or coating it
uses o­n the engine block, causing the oil filter gasket to stick after
being installed at the factory. Boyd said Honda does not believe that
to be the case.

Some dealers are frustrated, saying
Honda is
blaming them for a problem that’s not fully understood. "It’s covering
their butt," said a California dealer who asked not to be identified
for fear of hurting his relationship with Honda. "They’re blaming it o­n
the dealers so they don’t have to deal with it as the
manufacturer."

Boyd
said the company is supporting its dealers with information, but that
it believes the problem lies with technicians who do not follow proper
oil-changing procedure. In cases where a burned CR-V has had to be
replaced, Boyd said, it’s been up to individual dealerships and their
insurance companies to foot the bill.

Gene Kinnaly of Dale City
was enjoying his new Honda CR-V this summer until he began seeing media
reports about the potential for fires. Before his 5,000-mile oil change
two weeks ago, Kinnaly nervously reminded his dealer of the fire
problem, and the technicians at Hendrick Honda assured him they would
take great care with his car. The day after the oil change, Kinnaly
stopped to get gas and noticed a burning smell from the front of his
CR-V.

He lifted the hood to find smoke, and saw oil dripping from
the undercarriage. It was the very problem Kinnaly feared, and though
he caught it before the oil leak turned into a potentially dangerous
fire, it left him shaken.

"It has changed my feelings toward the
vehicle to the point where I need to talk to my wife about, do we need
to just cut our losses at this point and sell it and get something
else," said Kinnaly, 52, a librarian at the Library of Congress.

He
said Hendrick Honda went out of its way to apologize for the problem,
fixing it free and even sending his family flowers and giving them
restaurant meals. Attempts to reach the Hendrick Honda service
department manager for comment for this story were unsuccessful.

Kinnaly
said he still feels let down by Honda, a company long rated among the
safest of all carmakers, and by NHTSA — a point he made in the
complaint he filed with the government. "Will it take a death," Kinnaly
wrote, "before NHTSA and/or Honda does something that effectively
addresses this problem?"