Hyundai, Kia face potential safety crisis even as their quality ratings soar

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Hyundai and Kia have been among the top of the rankings of J.D. Power increased and earnings from Consumer Reports.

But a brewing crisis around hundreds of reports of non-falling fires in their vehicles could jeopardize the rewards of those awards and spark memories of their first years in the United States when the brands struggled with quality.

The South Korean stablemates are facing pressure from the Center for Auto Safety, which this month renewed the calls so that they could remember almost 3 million crossovers and sedans for possible fires that could erupt while people were driving.

The group calls for recall from all Kia Sorento, Kia Optima, Hyundai Sonata and Hyundai Santa Fe models from 2011-14, as well as all Kia Souls from 2010-15.

Nelson: What causes fires?

While that plea spread across the air, Congress got involved last week and called on the CEOs of Hyundai and Kia to appear before the Senate Commerce Committee on November 14, the same panel that triggered Mary Barra over faulty ignition switches, a few weeks later. her tenure as General Motors CEO.

"We have to get to the bottom of what causes these fires," Sen said. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., The ranking member of the committee, in a letter to the top American executives of the automaker. "Car owners need to know if their vehicles are safe."

The exposure comes at a sensitive time for Hyundai, which is amid a long-awaited product blitz, including an infusion of new and updated crossovers that dealers have counted on to boost their low-income sales growth. Both brands are also in peak marketing mode as official sponsors of the National Football League and National Basketball Association.

"This is a test" for Hyundai and Kia, said Jason Vines, who was a prominent public relations employee for various brands, including Ford when dealing with the upheaval of the Firestone band in 2000.

"Here are two brands, one company, that really have surpassed it," Vines said. "When they came to this market, the cars were nonsense and they failed, after that they threw themselves and their cars are fantastic."

The brands and NHTSA, the largest automatic safety regulator in the United States, issued recalls for motor fixings in 2015 and 2017 that they thought could solve the problem. Hyundai said it recalled more than 1 million Sonata and 2013-14 Santa Fe Sport vehicles in two actions in 2015 and 2017 to address a production problem that could lead to bearing wear and engine failure.

Do not & # 39; blow & # 39;

Kia, for its part, said that it encourages customers to get open recall work done as quickly as possible, "including certain 2011-2014 model year Sorento and Optima vehicles identified in June 2017."

But the center says that those recall actions were not extensive enough and that some recalled vehicles were only repaired to fire later.

Fisher: How will brands respond?

Vines noted that the fire problem has not escalated to the same level as the Firestone crisis, and there is time for Hyundai and Kia to prevent the brands from being damaged and consumers being put off if they do not & # 39; blow through & # 39 ;.

A number of heavy-duty communication activities are under way.

Hyundai said in a statement that it focuses on strengthening its "efforts to inform customers about the previous two engine reactions that we have carried out." We are working to communicate what the situation is, what the indications / signs are to be looked for and what steps they take. have to take so that we can repair the condition free of charge. We have also improved our customer service for these vehicles by adding staff and resources so that we can respond more quickly and answer questions from a customer. "

A spokesman for Kia wrote in an e-mail that the company will restart its notification efforts in November to contact customers whose vehicles have not been recalled and to encourage them to contact their local dealer and process the process. as soon as possible.

Vines said the brands should be reluctant in their communications, and noted a disturbing sentence in a statement from Kia that responded to the recall of the Center for Auto Safety.

The statement said that vehicle fires may be the result of a number of complex factors including "inadequate maintenance" and "improper repair". Vines said that such language blames customers, adding that brands simply do not win that way.

A Kia spokesman said he understands the criticism there and explained that the automaker is simply trying to get his arms in a complex situation.

"The only thing we are trying to convey is that these bodies can come from so many different places that stand on the side of the consumer and the manufacturer."

The admission of errors can work in favor of the brand.

Vines remembered when Chrysler got into trouble in 1987 after discovering that odometers were being used on cars of which some drivers drove and so the vehicles could be sold as new, reported The New York Times. Vines, then with Chrysler, said then CEO Lee Iacocca apologized and admitted that Chrysler's behavior was "stupid."

"Americans want you to admit when you ruin it, and they'll forgive you," Vines said.

A matter of confidence

Jake Fisher, director of consumer testing for Consumer Reports, said the fire problem could overshadow the strong brand quality reviews when consumers conclude that they are not handling it quickly enough.

"The reliability of recent years was pretty good, I do not think this is changing," Fisher said about Hyundai and Kia. "What we are looking at here is a security problem."

"It's about how you deal with the safety risk," he added. "That goes to your trust in the company, it's really a test for them how they will respond, are they going to take this seriously and will they go to that cause fast enough?"

Levine: extend previous recalls.

Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, said he hopes that Hyundai and Kia will elaborate on the recall of their engine remains. When reviewing the defect reports for those recall actions, Levine emphasized how she used the word & # 39; fire & # 39; not mentioned, so he is not sure how these repairs will prevent fire.

Levine said that being proactive with recall campaigns can maintain consumer confidence. Consumers understand, Levine said, that cars are complicated products.

"When you talk to people who have had vehicles that have been recalled and repaired, this in itself has no bearing on their willingness to buy their next new or used car from the same brand," Levine told Automotive News. "It is when they feel that they are abused or ignored, that is when you see loyalty slip and look at different brands."