WASHINGTON - Federal safety officials have opened two investigations of the Ford Explorer and Mercury Moun-taineer sport-utilities to determine if they have defects in steering and in windshield wiper systems.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it received four complaints about steering knuckles that separated from front axles, apparently because of missing upper ball joint pinch bolts. The complaints include one reported crash but no injuries.
The investigation covers 1997 and 1998 Explorers and Mountaineers. It also applies to Ford Ranger pickups from the same model years. The agency did not estimate how many vehicles would have to be recalled if a defect is found, but about 1.6 million of the trucks were produced.
NHTSA said it also opened an investigation of 1997-99 Ex-plorers and Mountaineers because of 35 complaints that windshield wipers malfunctioned. Some complainants said wipers stopped working. Others said they came on when the switch was off. No crashes were reported.
The agency said nearly 1.5 million of the vehicles are in service.
2 FORD CASES ENDED
At the other end of the spectrum, NHTSA said it is closing two investigations of Ford products because it found insufficient evidence of vehicle defects.
The cases had been opened because of complaints about smoke or fires in the center consoles of 1998 Ford Mustang Cobras and about indentations in the sidewalls of spare tires mounted under 1998 Ford F-150 pickups.
NHTSA also closed a case about damaged front brake hoses on 1999 Chevrolet C/K and GMC Sierra pickups because of insufficient evidence of a defect.
The agency closed an investigation of windshield wiper malfunctions on 1991-93 minivans built by the former Chrysler Corp. after DaimlerChrysler announced a recall of about 1.3 million vehicles.
A CLOSER LOOK
In its monthly compilation of defect investigations, NHTSA said it upgraded several cases from what it calls preliminary evaluation to the more serious level of engineering analysis.
The intensified cases involve complaints about the following:
On 1998 and some 1999 Oldsmobile Intrigues, rear seat belts that can snag on a belt guide and do not properly extend or retract. The agency and General Motors recorded 99 complaints. The company also logged nearly 6,000 warranty claims. About 140,000 of the cars are in service.
On 1995-97 Ford Windstars, cracks in plastic fuel tanks. The agency and manufacturer recorded 31 complaints, and the company reported 83 warranty claims. The agency has not determined the number of affected vehicles.
On four-wheel-drive 1996 Chevrolet Blazers, GMC Jimmys and Oldsmobile Bravadas, upper and lower control-arm ball-joint failures. NHTSA and GM recorded 79 complaints. The company also counted nearly 2,700 warranty claims. About 280,000 of the trucks are in service.
In another newly opened case, reported earlier by Automotive News, NHTSA said it is investigating front passenger airbags in 1995-97 Hyundai Accents. The agency said five passengers have been killed by airbag deployments in low- or moderate-speed crashes. About 136,000 of the cars are on the road.
Additional new defect investigations announced by NHTSA are as follows:
1999 SATURN, ALL MODELS,
Problem: Anchor bolt for front seat belt guide is loose.
Vehicle population: About 190,000.
1998-99 FORD CROWN VICTORIA, F-150 PICKUP, E-350 VAN, ALL BUILT TO OPERATE ON COMPRESSED NATURAL GAS
Problem: Fuel blows back out of filler pipe.
Complaints: One, involving four fleet vehicles.
Vehicle population: About 8,000.