WASHINGTON - Nearly 1 million Ford Motor Co. cars would be recalled if a federal investigation finds that instrument panel electrical problems in Ford Contours and Mercury Mystiques and Cougars are a safety defect.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it is stepping up its investigation of the cars to resolve that question. NHTSA upgraded the case from a preliminary evaluation to the more intense level of engineering analysis.
The company and the agency together have collected more than 2,100 complaints about overheating or burning of electrical wiring, switches or resistors connected with the blower for the heater and defroster. The complaints include 93 reports of fires.
Ford told NHTSA it also has handled nearly 13,000 possibly related warranty claims.
The affected vehicles are from the 1995 to 1999 model years.
NHTSA officials said they believe the incidents create safety hazards by rendering defrosters inoperable, distracting drivers and, in extreme cases, exposing occupants to fumes and fire. They indicated that Ford said motor vehicle safety is not affected.
Elsewhere in its monthly report of defect investigations, NHTSA said it has taken action in four cases about malfunctioning brakes in light trucks made by each of the Big 3.
The agency said it took the following actions in the cases:
It upgraded its investigation of 1999-2000 four-wheel-drive Ford Excursion sport-utilities and F-250 and F-350 Super Duty pickups because of complaints that the trucks pull to one side when brakes are applied.
NHTSA and Ford together have collected more than 900 complaints, including reports of four crashes. Ford said it is aware of more than 4,000 possibly related warranty claims. About 525,000 vehicles are in service.
It upgraded an investigation of parking brakes on 1999 Ford Super Duty F-series trucks. The agency and the company together have collected 132 complaints about brakes that don't hold. They include claims of 37 crashes. Ford reported nearly 1,200 warranty claims. There are 460,000 of the vehicles on the road.
It upgraded its investigation of parking brakes on 1994-95 Jeep Wranglers with manual transmissions. There have been 78 complaints of brakes that don't hold and 51 reports of crashes, with three injuries. DaimlerChrysler said it is aware of nearly 2,400 possibly related warranty claims. About 125,000 of the trucks are in service.
It opened a preliminary evaluation of vacuum boosters on the brakes of 1997-2000 Chevrolet and GMC light-duty pickups, which include C/K models and the Silverado and Sierra. The agency has received 18 complaints of boosters that fail. Those complaints include reports of two crashes with four injuries. The agency has not estimated the number of affected trucks.
In other developments, NHTSA said it closed three investigations because it found insufficient evidence that defects exist. The cases had been opened because of complaints about the following:
Gasoline that spit back during refueling of 1998 Ford Contours and Mercury Mystiques
Seat warmers that overheated in 1999 Chrysler Town & Country minivans
Airbags that tore during deployment in 1998-99 Chevrolet Venture, Oldsmobile Silhouette and Pontiac Trans Sport and Montana minivans.
Meanwhile, NHTSA opened another new investigation:
1999 PONTIAC GRAND PRIX
Problem: Airbag inflator fragments damage airbag, fly into passenger area.
Complaints: One, with one reported injury in a crash.
Vehicle population: 155,000.
NHTSA upgraded this case to an engineering analysis:
1993-95 JEEP CHEROKEE
Problem: Door hinges crack; doors sag; some fall off.
Complaints: About 2,600, including two crashes, eight injuries; plus 30,000 possibly related warranty claims.
Vehicle population: 365,000.