WASHINGTON - For the third time in less than a year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has opened a defect investigation into Ford Motor Co.'s large pickups and sport-utilities.
In the latest case, NHTSA said it has received five complaints of tie-rod end failures, which can lead to loss of steering control.
The investigation, in the early stage called a preliminary evaluation, covers 1996-98 four-wheel-drive Ford F-150 pickups; 1997-98 4wd Ford Expeditions; and 1998 4wd Lincoln Navigators.
In February, NHTSA began an investigation into front torsion bar failures in 1997 4wd Ford F-150s and Expeditions.
Last July, the agency started investigating complaints of wheels coming off F-150s and Expeditions, but that case will be closed now that Ford has announced it is recalling 1.7 million vehicles to replace lug nuts that may come loose.
The recall includes 1997 and some 1998 F-150 and light-duty F-250 pickups, Expeditions and Navigators.
Asked if the company is looking for a common source for the problems or if it believes they are coincidental, Ford spokeswoman Karen Shaughnessy said, 'I don't want to speculate. In all investigations, we look at a variety of things.'
In its latest list of defect investigations, NHTSA also said it has upgraded a case involving 1998 Ford Windstar minivans from preliminary evaluation to the more serious level of engineering analysis.
The agency and the manufacturer together have received 180 reports of missing or loose bolts in front brake caliper mounting plates.
NHTSA said that if a loose caliper pivots out, it could lock up a front wheel rim.
The investigation covers only part of the model year and affects 174,000 vehicles, the agency said.
Also upgraded was an investigation of headlight circuit failures in 1994-95 Dodge Ram 1500, 2500 and 3500 trucks. The agency and the manufacturer have received 249 reports of lights going out, including one crash and two injuries. There are more than 450,000 of the vehicles in service.
In its monthly defect report, NHTSA said it had closed two cases and denied one petition after finding insufficient evidence of what it calls a safety defect trend.
Those cases involved reports of the following allegations:
Inadvertent airbag deployments in 1994-95 Volvo 940 and 960 models.
Leaking fuel tanks in 1987-91 Toyota Camrys and 1990-91 Lexus ES250s.
Automatic transmission failures in 1989 Plymouth Voyager and Dodge Caravan minivans.
Here are the other cases opened:
1996-97 CHEVROLET MONTE CARLO Z-34
Problem: Brakes malfunction when wet.
Complaints: 14, including two crashes.
Vehicle population: 31,000.
1993-94 CHRYSLER CONCORDE,
DODGE INTREPID, EAGLE VISION
Problem: Failure of the rear suspension trailing arm or its attaching bolts.
Vehicle population: 360,000.