At least 27 Honda CR-V sport-utility vehicles from the 2003 and 2004 model years burst into flames shortly after getting their first oil changes, according to records provided to the federal government by the manufacturer.

While no injuries were reported, many of the vehicles were destroyed, usually with 10,000 miles or fewer on their odometers.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration investigated the situation and concluded July 1 that the cases were the fault of dealerships or others who improperly installed oil filters. The agency agreed with American Honda Motor Co. that oil from the filters most likely leaked onto the vehicles' hot exhaust systems, quickly igniting -- in some cases as the owners drove the small SUVs home from being serviced.

"We consulted with Honda. Honda concluded it was a technician's error, and they have taken steps to make sure service technicians who work on this vehicle understand that they need to be particularly diligent when they replace the oil filter," NHTSA spokesman Rae Tyson said.

But auto safety advocates say they're dismayed that the agency didn't take a stronger stand. "Relatively new cars catching on fire? Running the risk of injuring their occupants? It's a very unusual and a very dangerous situation," said Sally Greenberg of Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports. The fact that a routine oil change could have such catastrophic results suggests "a dire and a dangerous situation that both the automaker and the auto safety agency should have looked much more closely at," she said.

Honda, whose products are consistently rated among the safest vehicles, doesn't know why the fires are happening in only the two most recent CR-V models, spokesman Andy Boyd said. "That's the part we're still investigating. Honestly, that's something we're still trying to understand," he said, adding that there have been no major design changes.

While Boyd said the problem is "absolutely not a design defect," he said the CR-V's engine is configured "such that there is a higher likelihood of oil spraying onto the manifold than . . . on other vehicles." Honda has no plan to recall the vehicles and install a barrier to block the oil from hitting the hot exhaust manifold, he said.

"At this stage I don't believe we think a recall is warranted," Boyd said "We think with a little more communication and education with the dealers, the problem can be eliminated."

About 140,000 CR-Vs were sold in the United States in 2003. Honda said 22 of them caught fire from the apparent oil filter problem. So far this year, five owners of 2004 CR-Vs have reported such fires to NHTSA.

NHTSA's records relate the stories of drivers whose vehicles caught fire. Their names were blacked out. A woman driving on Braddock Road in Northern Virginia last January noticed smoke coming from under her 2003 CR-V. A passerby pulled up and told her it was on fire, so she swerved onto the shoulder, the electrical system shorted out and all the doors locked. She got out without injury.

A North Carolina family driving to church one Sunday in May noticed smoke and had to rush to get their two small children unbuckled from safety seats before their 2004 CR-V went up in flames.

A Georgia man coming home from a flea market stopped when he noticed smoke, tried to open his hood and "heard an explosion and the front end just burst into flames," according to records Honda supplied to NHTSA.

All had recently had their oil changed for the first time. Honda recently warned its technicians about the need to be careful replacing oil filters in a regular newsletter mailed out to all 1,008 U.S. dealer service shops, Boyd said.

Now the company is drafting a letter to the dealerships themselves, as well as preparing an article for a newsletter sent periodically to independent repair shops such as Jiffy Lube and Pep Boys. Honda also plans to change the language on the oil filter itself and its packaging, warning of the dangers of improper installation.

There are no plans to send warnings to customers who might change the oil themselves, Boyd said.

The problem is believed to happen one of two ways: The O-ring gasket on the old oil filter sometimes sticks to the crankcase, and if the new filter is installed over it, oil can leak around it. Or, if the gasket on the new filter isn't lubricated properly, it might set incorrectly and allow oil to leak around it. Then it can spray onto the hot manifold and burn.

Kay C. Brittain of Jacksonville, Fla., was driving to work from her first 5,000-mile oil change when she noticed black smoke in her rearview mirror. She pulled onto the median to turn and go back to the dealership, but a passing motorist shouted that her 2004 CR-V was on fire.

A week later, the elderly parents of one of Brittain's co-workers avoided injury when their 2003 CR-V burst into flames.

Brittain, 56, who learned from Web site chat groups of other such incidents around the country, said she had no problems with the 2002 CR-V she drove for two years before trading it in for the new model. Now that she has gotten her dealer to replace the one that burned with another 2004 CR-V, she has lost her peace of mind.

"It just scares me. Here I'm sitting with a brand new car, and come 5,000 miles I'm going to have to go through it again," she said. "I don't want this to happen to somebody else. If there is a problem, I think Honda should acknowledge it and at least check this out and not write it off.

"I'm just afraid something bad's going to happen. I just want them to take it seriously."