#ConsumerWatch: Ford SA 'recalls' - still a hot topic

By Georgina Crouth Time of article published Jan 14, 2019

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Johannesburg - Is it, or isn’t it another recall? That’s the question Ford customers are asking after receiving a notification via registered snail mail on November 29.

An eagle-eyed Kamraj Interpal flagged the issue on Thursday, having retrieved the letter once he’d returned from holidays, stating: “I received a certified letter that I had to pick up from the post office regarding the repairs to my 2015 Ford Kuga 1.6.”

The note stated that both the clutch and upper upholstery in the car needed to be replaced.

The letter read: “This is an advance notification that (Ford) will shortly commence a Customer Service Action (CSA) on the clutch pressure plate of certain vehicles.”

It then explains the reasons: “In affected vehicles, the clutch assembly may overheat as a result of aggressive driving habits and/or a worn clutch disc, resulting in abnormal noise, odor (sic), smoke, and/or engine speed flare accompanied by a loss of power.

“This may cause the clutch pressure plate to crack and eventually fracture, damaging the transmission assembly (this would) allow transmission fluid to leak onto the exhaust, which increases the risk of a fire.”

Mentioning fire and Ford in the same sentence is naturally perplexing.

But Minesh Bhagaloo, a spokesperson for Ford SA, denied it was a recall, stating it was, in fact, a “routine CSA”.

He said that towards the middle of last year Ford had learnt certain derivatives of Focus, Kuga and Transit Connect and Tourneo Connect vehicles with manual gearboxes could suffer a clutch pressure plate fracture.

“Safety is always a top priority and we are acting quickly to address this issue. As a precautionary measure, we directed affected customers to schedule an appointment with their preferred dealer in order to have a diagnostic test completed.

“If any evidence of clutch slippage was found, the clutch assembly would have been replaced,” Bhagaloo said, adding Ford has released a software calibration remedy that would detect excessive clutch slippage and warned the driver to take the vehicle to their dealer, dismissing it as a mere software update.

“We want to reassure our customers that the affected vehicles remain safe to drive. Any action carried out on affected vehicles will be free of charge. We remain committed to providing our customers with safe and high quality vehicles, addressing potential issues and responding quickly for our customers.”

The note to Interpal said Ford was “working closely” with its suppliers to produce parts for the repair, so once those became available, they would notify affected customers to schedule a repair.

Jimmy case unresolved

Reshall Jimmy, the Ford Kuga victim who burnt to death in his car, also experienced the engine speed flare, which caused his clutch to stick, his sister Renisha told me.

On December 4, 2015, Jimmy, 33, died in Wilderness while on holiday. A forensic report blamed faulty wiring behind the dashboard.

What followed was a lesson in how not to conduct crisis management.

Ford SA tried to blame the victim, suggesting he had committed suicide or died of a gunshot wound; disputed how and where the fire started to avoid liability; and denied the authenticity of a video circulating on social media showing the vehicle on fire, clearly burning from the front.

Its then chief executive, Jeff Nemeth, even tried religion, inviting the family to a meeting with a Christian archbishop. And, in yet another tone-deaf move, offered the Jimmy family another Ford to the value of R1 million, which was declined.

Ford was eventually forced to issue a recall for the Ford Kugas because the National Consumer Commission gave it an ultimatum: do it, or else we will.

The company’s recall was limited to the 1.6-litre Kuga built in Valencia, Spain between July 2012 and June 2014, but other Kuga models have also caught fire, some of which were caused by electrical problems.

Once the police investigation into the fire was complete the National Prosecuting Authority refused to prosecute the matter, stating there was no chance of a successful prosecution due to a “lack of evidence”.

In September last year, the NPA declined the Jimmy family’s attempt to launch a private prosecution through AfriForum, which would have been led by advocate Gerrie Nel. Instead, it was referred to a magistrate for an inquest.

The inquest starts on February 4 in Cape Town. Nel, known as a tenacious “bulldog” in the courtroom, will be leading the inquest alongside Rod Montano, the Jimmy family’s attorney.

Numerous recalls

Since his death, at least 64 other Kugas have caught fire in the country. And there have been numerous recalls since then: the first two were for faulty coolant systems, which Ford said caused the vehicle’s cylinder head to crack, which allowed oil to leak onto the hot engine and catch fire.

The next recall - the third in eight months - related to yet another fire hazard, in August 2017, for the Kugas’ front seatbelt insulation, which could catch alight in a collision. That was an urgent recall, after identifying an issue with its front seatbelts.

Owners were alerted to the issue via e-mail, with the recall notice stating: “In the event of an impact which deploys the front seatbelt retractor’s pre-tensioner there is a possibility that the insulation material on the inner face of the lower ‘B’ pillar trim could be subjected to a concentrated heat source that could ignite the insulation material, resulting in fire.”

Ford said although the seatbelt and faulty coolant issues were unrelated, customers who were bringing their vehicles in for the second recall (“phase two action”) would be able to bring their vehicles in to have both repairs done at the same time, killing two birds with one stone as it were. How convenient.

And yet, it used to be said, never buy a French car because of its unreliability. But while French manufacturers have made vast strides in improving quality and reliability, Ford SA has done little to instil confidence in its products.

For the Jimmy family, the inquest will hopefully put an end to the matter. It has been a fight all the way: Renisha says the NCC didn’t get the result it wanted from Ford, so referred the matter to the Consumer Tribunal, which hired a  lawyer to assist the family.  

If you were a Ford customer - whether in a Kuga, Ka, Fiesta or any of its other models - would you be happy with your purchase? Or would you want your money back?

Ford’s taken a huge reputational knock and the public perception - not only of its vehicles being unreliable and its “fixes” not being effective, but also of being an untrustworthy corporate bully.

Nemeth, who needed recalling to the US in 2017 by Ford International, told the press at one stage: “I want to stress that with the first stage of the safety recall completed, and with proper maintenance of the coolant system, the 1.6 Kuga is safe to drive.” Since then there were phase two and three recalls, and now this fourth one. For a range of Fords.

How many more recalls will it take to make these cars less risky?

If you need to have any of the recall phases completed, contact your dealer. Check on Ford SA’s website to see if you are affected by the most recent recall. For more information call Ford Customer Service at 0800 204 688 or 012 843 5824 or e-mail [email protected]

The Star

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