The U.S. government's auto safety agency is reviewing a Ford Motor Co. recall of thousands of cars, SUVs and vans that can run low on coolant and potentially overheat and catch fire after the company proposed a remedy that doesn't fix the coolant problem.
Ford notified the agency about the recall, which has caused 29 engine fires, in paperwork dated last week. The automaker said it would install a sensor that warns owners when coolant is low in the 1.6-Liter turbocharged engines. The sensor does not solve the underlying problem of vanishing coolant.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Tuesday it is reviewing the recall. "The agency will take appropriate action as necessary," an agency spokeswoman said in a statement. She would not provide further details. The agency confirmed the review after The Associated Press raised questions about Ford's remedy.
NHTSA could determine that the fix solves the fire problem, or it could open an investigation to see if more repairs are needed.
Experts say coolant shouldn't become depleted in newer cars, and that Ford may be cutting costs by shifting responsibility for the problem to owners. Coolant could be leaking from a number of places, or the engine could be burning it, both of which could cause significant engine trouble down the road — especially if owners don't religiously watch coolant levels and act immediately if they get low.
"All you're doing is monitoring a symptom, not solving a problem," said John Nielsen, managing director of automotive engineering for AAA. "A healthy engine doesn't leak coolant at all. Ever."
The recall includes about 230,000 vehicles in North America. Ford said engines can overheat if coolant gets low, causing the cylinder head to crack and spew oil that can catch fire. No injuries have been reported in any of the fires.
Parts won't be available to install the coolant-level sensor until later this year. In the meantime, Ford will send letters to owners telling them how to check coolant and add some if it gets low.
Elizabeth Weigandt, a company spokeswoman, said the sensor solves the safety problem. "You would stay informed as to how much coolant you have in the engine," she said. "That would address the unique risk of the cylinder head cracking."
The new sensor would turn on a dashboard warning light, she said.
In North America the recall includes Escape SUVs from the 2014 model year, plus the 2014 and 2015 compact Fiesta ST, the 2013 and 2014 Fusion midsize car and the 2013 through 2015 Transit Connect small van. In Europe, the recall covers the 2010 through 2015 C-Max hybrid and Focus small car, and the 2013 through 2015 Transit Connect.
Sean Kane, president of Safety Research and Strategies Inc., a Massachusetts firm that does auto testing for plaintiffs' lawyers and other clients, said Ford likely is trying to avoid costly engine repairs that would cure the coolant leaks. "It sounds like they have a bigger issue. More likely than not they don't want to repair that issue," he said.