WASHINGTON -- Volkswagen's Passat for 2002-03 is under investigation by federal regulators for the second time in three years after identical complaints about engine compartment fires related to ignition-coil failures.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Monday that it has opened a preliminary evaluation -- the first stage of a formal investigation -- of 16 owner reports involving as many as 199,000 vehicles.
Some complaints said the sedan “hesitated or lost power” during the ignition coil failure, and others said the coils failed and were replaced more than once, NHTSA said on its Web site.
“While driving approximately 45 MPH, the vehicle began shaking violently and shut down in the middle of an intersection,” one complainant wrote of his 2002 Passat. “The vehicle then skidded into an intersection and almost struck a child.”
A Volkswagen spokesman said the company is cooperating with NHTSA.
“We take all of these investigations seriously, and we're working with NHTSA on this matter,” company spokesman Kerry Christopher said Monday.
NHTSA also conducted a 2007-2008 investigation of the Passat after complaints were lodged about 78 crashes and engine fires possibly linked to ignition coil failures, the federal agency's records show.
This investigation was closed after Volkswagen recalled 412,000 Passats from 2000-2003.
"We will consider everything we have available to us," NHTSA said in an e-mailed statement today. "NHTSA investigation will look at the previous cases in which identical complaints were lodged about the same models. "
In a 2008 posting, NHTSA said: “These vehicles may have an underbody heat shield that can become damaged. A heat shield that may contact the exhaust system can result in a vehicle fire.”
Among the recalled vehicles were some that might have leaky fuel lines or fuel tank ventilation valves that could lead to fires, NHTSA said at the time.
Volkswagen dealers installed additional underbody heat shields and were told to replace fuel line and fuel tank ventilation valve components if necessary, the agency said.
Volkswagen's Christopher, asked about the earlier complaints of engine fires and ignition coils, said: “Each situation is unique. We take every investigation seriously.”
Volkswagen has had problems with the ignition coils on its Passats dating at least as far back as January 2003, according to NHTSA records.
The company instructed dealerships at that time to inspect the vehicles for malfunctioning ignition coil packs and replace them at no cost. Later in 2003, Volkswagen revised its instructions and asked dealers to replace all ignition coil packs regardless of performance, NHTSA records show.
A vehicle owner asked NHTSA to investigate ignition coil plugs on 2000-2003 Passats, Jettas and Golfs based on his experience with multiple stalling as a result of malfunctioning ignition coils on his 2002 Jetta, NHTSA records show.
NHTSA found that the number of complaints had plunged from 195 in January 2003 to three in August 2005, perhaps as a result of Volkswagen's instructions to dealers.
“A safety-related defect trend has not been identified at this time and further use of agency resources does not appear to be warranted,” NHTSA said at the time.
Volkswagen is planning to replace the Passat next year with an unnamed sedan to be built at its new assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. During the first half of this year, U.S. sales of the imported Passat rose 26 percent to 7,707 vehicles while VW's total sales increased 29 percent compared with the same six months last year. Total U.S. sales were up 17 percent during that period.