Government opens new safety investigations into Ford Focus over engine, suspension

Friday, June 7th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Safety officials have opened two new investigations into the Ford Focus, this time amid complaints the engine can suddenly stall and the front suspension can collapse.

The government has begun six investigations into the popular subcompact this year. Tim Hurd, a spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said Thursday he cannot recall the government's ever having as many investigations into one vehicle at the same time.

Seventy-two people told NHTSA that the Focus stalled while they were driving, including seven who crashed. Seven people reported the front suspension control arm fractured while they were driving, leading to six crashes.

The investigation into engine stall involves 574,700 cars from the 2000 and 2001 model years, the first two years of production. The suspension investigation also includes the 2002 model year.

The Focus is the country's fifth-best-selling car, trailing only the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Ford Taurus and Honda Civic. But it has been plagued with safety problems, already having been recalled eight times for problems ranging from faulty seat latches and windshield wipers to a throttle that can stick open.

Two of NHTSA's other open investigations involve possible air bag malfunctions, while the remaining were prompted by reports the rear wheel bearings could fail and the engine could catch fire.

NHTSA investigators said the alleged engine stall problem may be caused by debris accumulating in the gas tank, blocking fuel from being delivered to the engine.

NHTSA also is stepping up its investigation into nearly half a million General Motors Corp. vehicles after 28 crashes were blamed on a possible steering problem. More than 1,200 people have complained that the steering rack and pinion suddenly locked up while they were driving.

The investigation involves the 1998 Oldsmobile Intrigue and 1997 models of the Pontiac Grand Prix, Pontiac Tran Sport, Chevrolet Venture, Chevrolet Malibu, Oldsmobile Silhouette and Oldsmobile Cutlass.

The problem can cause the driver to lose steering control. GM reported six crashes in which eight people were hurt, but no injuries or deaths were reported in the other 22 crashes.

NHTSA opens any investigation with a preliminary inquiry, in which the agency and the manufacturer exchange paperwork. That is the stage of the Focus investigations.

The agency can upgrade the case to an engineering analysis if it wants to examine the vehicle in detail for a possible safety defect. The GM investigation is in this stage.

NHTSA's investigations can lead to a recall, but many are dropped.

Spokesmen for Ford and General Motors would not comment on the investigations except to say the companies are cooperating with the agency.

NHTSA also opened a preliminary investigation into about 75,000 Toyota T100 pickups from the 1993 through 1998 model years. Fourteen people have complained to the agency that the clutch pedal mounting bracket or the firewall where it attaches will fracture while driving.

The problem would stop the clutch from disengaging when the pedal is pressed and could cause the vehicle to move unintentionally, the engine to stall or stopping distances to increase.