Trying to do the right thing could cost Volvo's U.S. sales arm up to $425,000.
About 500 of Volvo's new 1998 S70 sedans and V70 wagons are stuck in three U.S. ports. They are the last of about 8,500 cars - about one month's worth of Volvo's U.S. sales - that need to have an adapter ring from the fuel filler removed. The cost: about $50 per car.
Volvo installed the ring to head off a potential problem tied to new federal rules. In the 1998 model year, automakers must begin installing fuel vapor recovery systems on their vehicles. The devices are designed to trap gasoline vapors during refueling to reduce hydrocarbon emissions.
The EPA mandate begins in phases. In the 1998 model year, 40 percent of each automaker's car fleet must be equipped with the recovery system. The rate rises to 80 percent the next year and 100 percent for the 2000 model year. A three-year phase-in period for light trucks begins with the 2001 model year.
Volvo sought to seize the environmental high ground by equipping 100 percent of its fleet for 1998.
But a problem surfaced during testing last fall. Volvo discovered that some fuel pump handles would shut off early. In some cases, the handles would not work at all on autos with the vapor recovery system.
And because vapor recovery systems used by other automakers are similar, it looked as if a larger problem was looming for the auto industry.
The problem was caused by a pressure imbalance between the fuel filler and so-called Stage 2 nozzles, said Daniel Doku, engineer for fuel economy and emissions for Volvo Cars North America Inc. Those nozzles, required in parts of the country with high pollution rates, include a plastic boot. The boot covers the fuel-filler opening, captures fuel vapors, and routes them to an underground storage tank.
Less than 5 percent of all gas stations in the affected areas have nozzles that will not work with the vapor recovery system. But Volvo says it was concerned that customers would not be able to refuel their vehicles. So it designed a fix: an aluminum ring with vent holes attached to the top of the fuel filler neck.
Volvo built its 1998 cars with the modified fuel filler neck. The S70, a successor to the Volvo 850, went on sale last January.
FIX IS A NO-GO
But the plan went awry in late June when the California Air Resources Board denied Volvo's modification. In a letter to Volvo, the board said the modification allowed too much air and vapor to enter the underground storage tanks at gas stations, forcing the tanks to vent fuel vapors into the air.
In the letter, the board noted that it denied a similar request from Chrysler Corp. last December.
But the Big 3 believe that their recovery systems, which were not altered like Volvos, have been thoroughly tested and will not cause a problem, a spokesman for the American Automobile Manufacturers Association said.
A California Air Resources Board spokesman said one of the problematic nozzles, the Healy model 400, has been decertified by the state. That means the nozzle cannot be replaced by a similar type when it wears out. Saber and Husky, the other manufacturers of problematic nozzles, have developed modifications that solve the early shut-off problem.
In the meantime, Volvo is stuck. 'We're playing catch-up right now,' said Doku, the Volvo engineer.
Volvo has designed a tool that looks like a gas cap but cuts the tabs on the filler neck ring to remove the modification, Doku said. But in addition to the costs of removing the modification, Volvo has paid for engineering the fix in the first place, as well as storage fees for the cars stuck in Newark, N.J.; Jacksonville, Fla.; and Port Hueneme, Calif.
Some of the affected vehicles have been delivered to customers. Volvo plans a service campaign to remove the adapters when the cars come into a dealership for the 10,000-mile service interval or another service visit. But Volvo does not plan a recall, a spokesman said.
Volvo said that although it does not expect widespread problems, it has sent information to dealers about the refueling problem, and will include inserts in the owners' manual. Customers who cannot refuel their vehicles also can call Volvo's roadside assistance number for help.