TAMPA, Fla. — The I-Team is breaking new ground on a four-year investigation into thousands of car fires.
As more car and SUV drivers report narrow escapes after the recalls of 5.8 million vehicles, a national auto safety watchdog tells I-Team investigator Jackie Callaway about plans to issue a consumer alert.
The I-Team first broke the story of Kia's and Hyundai's catching fire while parked in driveways or riding on the road in 2018. Yet drivers continue to endure harrowing escapes.
Yolanda Lawson said a fellow motorist waved her over after flames started shooting out of the bottom of her Kia SUV on an Ocala road in February.
"When I jumped out, as soon as I jumped out, I just looked back I seen the flames engulf," Yolanda said.
Mathias Donaldson, 17, bailed out of his burning 2011 Kia Optima on February 19 after a security guard at a Tampa subdivision alerted him to flames leaping from underneath the front end. Mathias said, "a few seconds later, the car was in flames."
Last October, Maureen Huckler's 22-year-old daughter Aubrey raced to get out of her burning 2015 Kia Soul after another driver flagged her down on a California highway.
"They got her belongings out of the car, and it just imploded," Maureen said.
In the years after ABC Action News first exposed fires in certain models, Kia and Hyundai recalled more than 5.8 million vehicles over fire risks. Michael Brooks, with the Center for Auto Safety, said the recalls and repairs did not go far enough.
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"The recall did not fix the underlying problems with the engine design that caused these issues in the first place," Brooks said.
The I-Team's latest reports, combined with the Center for Auto Safety's fielding of ongoing complaints of fires and engine failures, led Brooks to tell the I-Team a consumer advisory is inevitable.
"We are going to begin issuing warnings to consumers and try to get the word out to folks shopping for used cars," he said.
The consumer alert could include about 4 million Kia and Hyundai vehicles manufactured between 2011 and 2019; all of which have the Theta 2 engines that have been tied to multiple recalls.
- 2011-2019 Hyundai Sonata
- 2013-2019 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport
- 2014-2015, 2018-2019 Hyundai Tucson
- 2011-2019 Kia Optima
- 2012-2019 Kia Sorento
- 2011-2019 Kia Sportage
Brooks told ABC Action News the only way he sees to stop these complaints from coming in "is to warn consumers to prevent them from having to have one of these vehicles in the first place."
We reached out to both automakers about the Center for Auto Safety's announcement.
Hyundai has taken numerous proactive actions to address engine issues, including conducting several recalls, launching a new engine monitoring and diagnostic technology, providing extended warranties and enhancing our customer service response. Hyundai fosters a culture of transparency and accountability as the safety of our customers is the top priority in everything we do.
At Kia America, the safety of our vehicles is our main priority. We foster a culture of transparency and accountability and are proud of our strong safety record and the integrity of our products. We continuously evaluate our vehicles as part of ongoing monitoring activities and provide quarterly reports to NHTSA regarding any consumer complaints, notices or claims for any safety issues. All Kia vehicles sold in the United States meet or exceed all federal government vehicle safety standards.
In December, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration announced an expanded investigation into the scope of the recalls and the effectiveness of the recall remedies. As of December, NHTSA counted nearly 5,000 fires and158 injuries. The I-Team has reported on two deaths involving Kia Souls that caught fire.
Recent recalls connect the fires to multiple defects. They include oil leaks, electrical problems connected to the anti-lock braking system and a faulty recall repair that can trigger a fuel line leak causing vehicles to burst into flames while driving.
In 2018 after the I-Team exposed faulty recall repairs, Kia recalled thousands of 2011 to 2104 Optimas. But Mathias' 2011 Optima was not included in the recall.
We asked fire investigator Richard Meier, owner of Meier Fire Investigations, to inspect Mathias' vehicle. He concluded a gas leak in a fuel pipe was to blame.
"The most likely cause from what I've seen at this point is the fuel line connector came off and spilled gasoline," Meier said.
Mathias told ABC Action News, "You've got to fix those. That is just putting more people in danger."
Yolanda Lawson is one of several Kia fire victims who told us the brakes failed after their vehicles caught fire. Yolanda said the emergency brake and regular brakes failed. She ran the car into the median to get it to stop.
Jordan Carlton died in 2020, 14 months after his rented 2019 Kia Soul burst into flames. His mom Becky, who was in the car with him, escaped. Jordan's dad Robert Carlton said the brakes failed and prevented his son from getting out of the vehicle in time to save his own life.
In Yolanda's case, the I-Team found Kia recalled her 2017 Sportage in March of 2021 over an electrical fire risk. Yolanda said she never received a recall notice.
The I-Team asked Kia to examine Maureen Huckler's 2015 Soul. In a report provided to Maureen, Kia states: "The cause of the fire was a catastrophic failure of the engine resulting in a hole in the engine block and the expulsion of engine oil onto the exhaust system."
But records show the vehicle was recalled in 2020 for an engine inspection to look for fire-related defects. A Kia dealer performed the inspection in March 2021. Six months later, the Soul burned up.
In 2020 Kia and Hyundai agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit over engine fires for $760 million. As a result, both Mathias and Yolanda may qualify for money to cover their losses. Litigation involving the Kia Souls is ongoing.