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?"