Sucheta Dalal :Building a fire under Honda
Sucheta Dalal

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Building a fire under Honda  

May 14, 2007

Honda CR-V Fires

In a class action suit against American Honda Motor Corporation, an Illinois man charges that a design defect in certain Honda CR-V and Element models makes them prone to fast-spreading engine fires.

The oil filter is dangerously close to the exhaust manifold on 2003, 2004 and 2005 model CR-Vs, the suit charges, and is mounted vertically, creating a situation where leaking oil can spray directly on the hot exhaust manifold.

The suit said the alleged defect also occurs in Element models equipped with the 2.4-liter DOHC i-VTEC engine.

The allegation is similar to an observation made by a ConsumerAffairs.Com reader, Rob of Bartlesville, Oklahoma, who complained about the problem in 2004:

"I have worked as a general automotive technician in a nearby Honda dealership. Honda designs the engine with the oil filter in a very ungodly place: between the block and the firewall. They even have special 'shields' sent to the dealership, so that when an oil change is done, the technician can put that on the exhaust, because the filter is also located directly above the hottest part of the exhaust, and oil will get on the exhaust during an oil change."

"I used to cringe when I saw a new Honda SUV coming in for service because I did my job correctly, and made sure the filters were tight. But doing so means getting burns from the exhaust, which I still have scars from a year later. To fully understand its positioning, you really need to get a new honda SUV on the lift, and look at the beast from below. I don't know WHAT they were thinking when they designed it this way. It's like, here's the oil filter, now, lets make an SUV around it."

The plaintiff, Hal Pilger of Springfield, Ill., alleges that Honda has known of the supposed defect but has failed to issue a recall. Pilger's 2003 CR-V burst into flames while he was driving it, he said.

Honda has denied all of the allegations and says any fires that have occurred have been the result of improper installation of the oil filter.

The suit notes that, beginning with 2002 models, Honda modified its engine design to improve compliance with clean air standards. The changes resulted in significantly higher temperatures in the exhaust manifold and exhaust pipes, creating a situation where leaking oil is more likely to ignite.

Attorneys for Pilger said tests performed by consulting engineers found that the CR-V and Element's front exhaust pipe exceeded 800 degrees (F) during both city and highway driving tests.

This mirrors an observation made by a ConsumerAffairs.Com reader, Matt of Columbus, Ohio, who wrote in October 2004 of a bizarre sight he had witnessed during his morning commute on a Columbus freeway.

"In morning daylight, 8:30 AM, 50 degree temperature in Columbus Ohio, I was astonished to see a Honda CRV travelling at 65 mph beside me on the freeway with its exhaust system glowing so brightly I first mistook it for an orange neon lighting system," Matt wrote.

"The first thing that came to mind was 'this poor guy's car is going to catch on fire,'" said Matt, who said he is an experienced mechanic and member of a Sports Car Club of America racing team.

Honda Blames Mechanics

While not denying that fires have plagued CR-V and Element owners, Honda has taken the position that the fires are not the result of a design defect but rather the fault of poor workmanship by the mechanics who perform oil changes on the vehicles.

Excerpts from internal American Honda reports submitted to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) "contain numerous admissions ... and clearly establish that it is the defective engine and exhaust system design and configuration" that has caused the engine fires, the suit charges.

Officially, Honda has blamed the problem on a "double gasket" problem, often when a vehicle gets its very first oil change. In December 2004, Honda sent letters to vehicle owners saying that oil filter's rubber gasket tends to remain stuck in the engine block, which prevents the new filter from sealing properly. Oil then leaks out onto a hot manifold, potentially starting a fire, the company said.

NHTSA accepted the explanation, though somewhat reluctantly. Initialy, in July 2004, Honda blamed the fires on mechanics and issued revised instructions to dealers. But the fires continued. In September, there had been at least 44 fires and NHTSA re-opened its investigation.

Honda stuck with its story. Honda officials said that technicians were leaving the rubber gasket from the factory-installed oil filter on the engine block and placing the new filter on top of it.

"When that happens, the filter doesn't seal properly, allowing oil to leak out. After a few minutes of driving, the CR-V's manifold heats up and ignites the leaking oil," said a story published at the time.

Honda's Explanation Questioned

But Pilger's lawsuit casts doubt on Honda's explanation. It charges that the company's own internal investigation found that 68.4% of the oil leaks and fires did not "in any way" involve the so-called "double gasket" problem.

In addition, says the suit, Honda's attempt to cast blame onto auto mechanics doesn't wash.

"Millions of oil changes are performed every day throughout the country -- and an untold number of these oil changes are performed improperly and result in oil leaks," the suit says, but few of the leaks result in fires.

"That is, in large part, due to the engine and exhaust system design configurations used by automotive manufacturers," configurations that it says Honda ignored in the design of the CR-V and Element.

The suit asks the court to award damages to owners of vehicles that were damaged by fire and to launch a recall campaign to repair or replace the allegedly defective vehicles.

By James R. Hood

-- Sucheta Dalal