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Hyundai, Kia face potential safety crisis even as their quality ratings soar

Hyundai and Kia have soared to the top of J.D. Power’s quality rankings in recent years and earned respectable marks from Consumer Reports.

But a brewing crisis surrounding hundreds of reports of noncollision fires in their vehicles could put the rewards of those accolades at risk and rekindle memories of their early years in the U.S. when the brands struggled with quality.

The South Korean stablemates are facing pressure from the Center for Auto Safety, which renewed calls this month for them to recall almost 3 million crossovers and sedans for potential fires that could erupt while people are driving.

The group is asking for recalls of all 2011-14 Kia Sorento, Kia Optima, Hyundai Sonata and Hyundai Santa Fe models, as well as all 2010-15 Kia Souls.

Nelson: What's causing fires?

As that plea spread across the airwaves, Congress, too, got involved last week, calling on the CEOs of Hyundai and Kia to appear Nov. 14 before the Senate Commerce Committee, the same panel that grilled Mary Barra over faulty ignition switches just weeks into her tenure as General Motors CEO.

“We’ve got to get to the bottom of what’s causing these fires,” said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., the committee’s ranking member, in a letter to the automaker’s top U.S. executives. “Car owners need to know if their vehicles are safe.”

The exposure comes at a sensitive time for Hyundai, which is amid a long-awaited product blitz, including an infusion of new and updated crossovers that dealers have been counting on to stimulate its anemic sales growth. Both brands are also in peak marketing mode as official sponsors of the National Football League and National Basketball Association.

“This is a test” for Hyundai and Kia, said Jason Vines, who was a prominent public relations exec for several brands, including Ford when it was dealing with the Firestone tire uproar in 2000.

“Here’s two brands, one company, that have really overachieved,” Vines said. “When they came to this market, the cars were crap, and they failed. Then they redid themselves and their cars are fantastic.”

The brands and NHTSA, the nation’s top auto safety regulator, have pointed to recalls for engine fixes in 2015 and 2017 that they said could rectify the problem. Hyundai said it recalled more than 1 million 2011-14 Sonata and 2013-14 Santa Fe Sport vehicles in two actions in 2015 and 2017 to address a manufacturing problem that could lead to bearing wear and engine failure.

Don’t ‘blow it’

Kia, for its part, said it’s encouraging customers to get open recall work done as soon as possible, “including certain 2011-2014 model year Sorento and Optima vehicles identified in June of 2017.”

But the center says those recalls weren’t comprehensive enough, and that some recalled vehicles have been repaired only to catch fire later.

Fisher: How will brands respond?

Vines noted that the fire problem hasn’t escalated to the same level as the Firestone crisis, and there’s time for Hyundai and Kia to keep the situation from damaging the brands and scaring consumers, if they don’t “blow it.”

Some heavy-duty communications work is under way.

Hyundai said in a statement that it is focused on reinforcing its “efforts to inform customers about the previous two engine recalls we conducted. We are working to communicate what the condition is, what the indications/signs to look for are, and what steps they should take so we can fix the condition at no cost. We have also enhanced our customer service response for these vehicles by adding staff and resources so we can more quickly respond to and address any questions or concerns a customer may have.”

A Kia spokesman wrote in an email that the company will restart notification efforts in November “to contact customers whose vehicles have not had the recall conducted and to encourage them to contact their local dealer and schedule the process as soon as possible.”

Vines said the brands must be cautious in their communication, noting a troubling sentence in a statement from Kia responding to the Center for Auto Safety’s recall push.

The statement said that vehicle fires can result from a number of complex factors, including “inadequate maintenance” and “improper repair.” Vines said such language puts blame on customers, adding that brands simply don’t win that way.

A Kia spokesman said he understands the criticism there, and explained that the automaker is simply trying to get its arms around a complex situation.

“All we’re trying to get across there is that these instances can come from so many different places that are on the consumer side and manufacturer side.”

Admitting fault can work in the brands’ favor.

Vines recalled when Chrysler got in trouble in 1987 after the discovery that odometers on cars that some executives drove were being tampered with so the vehicles could be sold as new, The New York Times reported. Vines, then with Chrysler, said then-CEO Lee Iacocca apologized and admitted that Chrysler’s behavior was “stupid.”

“Americans like for you to admit when you screwed up, and they will forgive you,” Vines said.

A matter of trust

Jake Fisher, director of auto testing for Consumer Reports, said the fire problem has the potential to overshadow the brands’ strong quality ratings if consumers conclude that they’re not handling it promptly enough.

“The reliability over the years has been quite good. I don’t think that is changing,” Fisher said of Hyundai and Kia. “What we’re looking at here is a safety issue.”

“It’s about how you’re dealing with the safety risk,” he added. “That does go to your trust in the company. It really is a trial for them of how they’re going to respond. Are they going to take this seriously and are they going to get to that root cause fast enough?”

Levine: Expand earlier recalls.

Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, said he hopes Hyundai and Kia will expand on their engine-debris recalls. When looking at the defect reports for those recalls, Levine highlighted how they didn’t mention the word “fire,” so he is unsure how those repairs will prevent fires.

Levine said being proactive with recalls can preserve consumer trust. Consumers understand, Levine said, that cars are complicated products.

“When you talk to people who’ve had vehicles that were recalled and repaired, it doesn’t in and of itself have any impact on their willingness to buy their next new or used car from that same brand,” Levine told Automotive News. “It’s when they feel as if they are being mistreated or being ignored. That’s when you see loyalty slip and they look to different brands.”

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