Burning Question: Why are Some Manufacturers Investigated for Door Fires, Others Not?

Karen Swicker’s used 2002 Subaru Outback was new to her – less than a year old, when the driver’s side door ignited as she drove look along a Newburyport, Massachusetts road on February 16. The first puff of smoke sent her to the side of the road. As she came to a stop, the wisps had turned to a cloud. When the Fire Department pulled the door off, it burst into flames, and fire fighters had to cut the electrical wires from the harness.

This might have made a memorable entry in Subaru’s new marketing campaign, First Car Story, in which a driver can used an automated computer program with music and graphics to wax poetic about the elderly El Dorado with the duct-taped bumper that ferried him and his friends to the malt shop.

As Alan Bethke, Subaru of America’s director of marketing communications said in a statement: “The First Car Story campaign provides a creative outlet for reliving those unique, funny, unforgettable car experiences anyone who had a first car can relate to.”

Swicker’s story, however, isn’t unique, nor is it funny. When she turned to Subaru for answers, “They asked me if I was okay, and after I said that I was, they told me I had to file a claim with my insurance.” Customer service expressed no interest in finding out why her door had burst into flames. Given the age of the vehicle when she purchased it last July, her insurance agent advised her to forgo comprehensive coverage, so there could be no insurance claim. The vehicle was declared a total loss, and Subaru told Swicker they would get back to her.

Meanwhile, Swicker’s mechanic Joe Dinan had an interesting conversation with the Liberty Mutual adjuster who came to examine to vehicle.

“His exact words were: ‘Between you, me and the lamppost, I’ve seen four of these.’”

Like we said, her story is not unique. And as Subaru quietly pays the insurance subrogation claims, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s consumer complaint system has fielded  complaints going back to 2008 from Subaru Outback and Legacy owners like this one that occurred last September:

“The contact owns a 2001 Subaru outback. While driving approximately 65 mph, the contact noticed a burning smell in the vehicle. Suddenly, there were flames under the buttons of the front driver side arm rest. The contact stopped the vehicle and was able to extinguish the fire. The vehicle was taken to an independent mechanic for diagnostics. The mechanic stated there was a short in the wires connected to the side view mirror defroster.”

It only took another handful of similar complaints to launch two investigations last month into electrically-based door panel fires afflicting 2006-2007 Chevy Trailblazers and 2007 RAV4 and Camry vehicles. NHTSA’s Office of Defect Investigations opened Preliminary Evaluations on February 6 and 9. The agency is investigating Toyota door fires on the strength of six EWR reports; ODI had 12 consumer complaints and an unidentified number of EWR field reports about Trailblazers. According to news reports, NHTSA is looking at the possibility that GM and Toyota share a window supplier.

SRS has requested NHTSA investigate Subaru door fires. You can read our letter to NHTSA Administrator David Strickland here.

We don’t know if Toyota shares switch suppliers with Subaru, but it does have a 16.8 percent stake in Fuji Heavy Industries, which owns Subaru. And where there’s smoke..

Swicker, in the meantime, has had to rent a car, while she waits for the automaker to decide whether her car story has a happy ending.

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