WASHINGTON -- Owners of some 2001 Kia Optimas say their cars have a nasty habit of locking them inside.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is stepping up its investigation of the cars' electric door locks to determine whether they have a safety defect.
If so, Kia Motors America Inc. would have to recall the vehicles and make repairs. About 25,000 of the cars are in service.
NHTSA says it has gotten nine complaints about the locks. One motorist from Miami, whom NHTSA did not identify, said she and her daughter were trapped in their Optima for four hours.
Kia told NHTSA it has received 288 complaints about lock malfunctions. Its dealers have handled nearly 6,000 possibly related warranty claims. But the automaker insists there is no safety defect.
Engineers think that deterioration of a rubber pawl stopper in the door latch assembly is the source of many door lock problems. But in an Oct. 1 response to preliminary inquiries from NHTSA, the automaker denied that people can be "trapped," as complaints suggest.
Alfred Gloddeck is senior manager of corporate affairs for Hyundai-Kia America Technical Center Inc., a company that handles technical and regulatory issues for Hyundai and Kia in the United States. He told NHTSA that people with malfunctioning locks find ways to get out. These range from "playing with" a locked door to crawling into the trunk and pulling the emergency release, he said.
In a statement last week to Automotive News, Kia said it understands that problem locks are a nuisance for customers and said it is providing warranty-covered repairs. The automaker also said it is cooperating with NHTSA but continues to believe there is no safety issue.
In a separate action, NHTSA is investigating whether a 2001 recall of 1.4 million Ford Motor Co. vehicles was adequate. The vehicles were recalled for inspection and possible replacement of front seat belt buckles.
The agency says it has gotten 11 complaints that buckles that were inspected and called safe have failed to stay latched. The complaints include two reported crashes with two alleged injuries.
Affected models are the Mercury Grand Marquis, Lincoln Town Car and Navigator and Ford Crown Victoria, Ranger, Windstar, Expedition, Excursion and F-150 through F-550 trucks.
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