Warrren Krog's 2013 Ford Kuga burns out in Alberton on 12 January. Picture: Warren Krog / AP
Johannesburg - Appallingly handled, a public relations fiasco and a lesson in how not to handle crisis communication - the Ford Kuga issue has not only cost one person his life but allegedly destroyed almost 50 vehicles (the company disputes this).

It has shattered consumers’ confidence in the 113-year-old American brand and Ford SA’s attempts to manage the situation have only made matters far, far worse.

The Kuga 1.6 EcoBoost model, manufactured between 2012 and 2014 - ironically known overseas as the Escape - weren’t recalled when South Africans started complaining about its combustible SUVs.

Insurance companies alerted Ford more than a year ago but the recall happened only when the National Consumer Commission stepped in, giving Ford an ultimatum that if it didn’t, the Kugas would be pulled off the road.

“One incident is one too many and this issue has dragged on for too long no brand is above the law,“ commissioner Ebrahim Mohamed said at last Monday’s press conference when the recall was announced.

“The NCC has concerns for the users of the Kuga and the various life-threatening incidents. A product which poses risks to consumers doesn’t have a place in our marketplace,” he said.

In total, 4556 Kugas must be recalled. The affected cooling system components have to be replaced, a software update conducted and an oil leak check done on the cylinder head. But this does not constitute a proper safety recall - in effect, it’s simply a maintenance recall.

Still, Ford Southern Africa chief executive Jeff Nemeth assured miffed customers that safety was its highest priority: “We will listen to them (our customers) while we work to ensure that the integrity of the cooling system is maintained. There is no reason to lose faith in your vehicle, but every Ford customer can have the assurance that every individual case will be assessed on individual merit.”

It wasn’t convincing.

Durban reader Robbie Moore is one of thousands of disillusioned Ford customers.

“Two months ago I purchased a used 2013 model Kuga from a Ford dealership in Durban. No mention was made that this model was a potentially defective vehicle and that some had caught fire on the roadway.

“Please advise me if, according to the Consumer Protection Act, it’s possible to demand my money back as apart from the risk of driving the vehicle, the future resale value of the vehicle is going to take a dive. I have taken it in for the so-called safety check where it was ascertained that it was defective. It is awaiting spares.”

Consumer lawyer Trudie Broekmann says because Moore bought his car less than six months ago the CPA offers him some protection, even though it’s a 2013 model.

The burning question

“The short answer is that if the model is ‘hazardous’ or ‘unsafe’ as defined by the CPA, then the consumer can return the vehicle to Ford within six months of purchase and ask for his money back (or a replacement vehicle). The third option is to ask for/accept an offer from Ford to repair the car.

“The question is whether the particular vehicle is hazardous or unsafe, as defined in section 53 of the CPA.”

That section of the act requires that goods must be free of defects, safe and in good working order. But it’s not as simple as returning your Kuga to the dealer and asking for your money back.

NCC spokesperson Trevor Hattingh said: “In terms of section 56 of the act, any product should be fit for purpose for at least six months after purchase. This hazard is caused by a manufacturing defect. But dealers aren’t going to just give you your money back.

“He needs to take it for the repair and if that fails - or a secondary feature fails and another hazard develops - then the supplier must replace or refund him the price he paid.

“Otherwise, the dealers will try to take off mileage and factor in other issues. And we know how the resale value has plummeted.”

Loss of value

That loss of value forms part of the class action suit launched by the Jimmy family, their lawyer Rod Montano said.

“Part of the damages claims relates to the resales. The NCC is working with us and will facilitate the claims so consumers can contact the commission.

“Ford is recalling 2012-2014 models; we’ve had complaints about turbo diesels 2.5, Figos and Kugas from 2015. It’s a lot bigger than they’re making it out to be.

“The predominant cause has been said to be engine fires but there have also been electrical fires. They were aware of these problems four years ago. The insurance companies have been reporting on this for over a year. If it’s an international recall, why are they not recalling the vehicles here too?”

As the victim of the 2015 Kuga fire Reshall Jimmy’s brother, Kaveen, questioned during their press conference: “Are South African lives less important?”

Ford SA recalled the Kugas only when the NCC pushed it into a corner, Montano said, and now it was trying to shift the blame, with Nemeth stating it was a private matter for the insured - but “each claim will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis”.

“Why should South African consumers and insurance companies have to pay for their manufacturing fault?” Montano asked.

Trying to shift the problem

The NCC agrees. Hattingh said the producer, importer, retailer or distributor of any goods that were likely to cause harm were wholly liable. But, the consumer could choose whether to claim from their insurer. And they had a right to claim from the manufacturer in terms of section 61 (of the CPA) for damages and losses.

Ford SA has a lot to answer for in terms of not recalling these cars sooner, poorly managing the situation, claiming its manufacture in Spain might have been an issue because of the climate and trying to shift the problem onto insurance companies.

If you had bought your Ford Kuga recently, worry about your safety, the resale value and whether your car is going to spontaneously combust. No “quick” fix is going to ally your fears - nor a brand’s reputation.

And if your car burnt out, you might want to approach Ford about it: these are its manufacturing faults, not something our economy should be forced to pay for.

Saturday Star

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