Analysis: Report on BMW Fires May Just Be Smoke

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CARS.COM — A news story this week has made a lot of BMW owners nervous with its report of what it calls “mysterious,” seemingly spontaneous fires in parked BMW vehicles. Should you worry? There is no way to tell for certain from the report.

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The report, from ABC News, is based largely on anecdotes gathered by ABC affiliates across the country. It notes that while BMW has over the years conducted recalls for issues that could lead to fire, it found at least 43 fires in parked vehicles for which there was no relevant recall.

That’s a small number, and BMW’s response sent to noted, “With approximately 4.9 million BMW vehicles on U.S. roads, fire incidents involving BMWs are extremely rare.”

That’s not to say there is no problem with some individual BMWs; there obviously were in the examples cited and any one could have devastating consequences. One prominently mentioned by ABC involved a Maryland couple’s 2008 X5, which caught fire in the garage and resulted in the total loss of their home. There’s even a blog on the subject. Also, many of the owners told ABC they were unhappy with the response they got from BMW, which prides itself on customer service.

But nothing in the piece leads you to make an informed judgment about a systemic problem or defect with BMWs. The vehicles in the examples span more than a decade, multiple products (one shot shows a first-generation Mini Cooper, and different designs and manufacturing origins.

BMW said it investigates any fire incident brought to its attention and has found no common cause in these.

“We have investigated and in some cases inspected the vehicles identified by ABC News. These vehicles span an age range of 1-15 years, accumulated mileage of up to 232,250 miles, and multiple generations and model types. In cases that we have inspected and are able to determine root cause, we have not seen any pattern related to quality or component failure.”

The automaker went on to list possible “external reasons” for fires, including bad accident repairs, aftermarket electronics and even rodent nesting.

A Car Is Never Really ‘Off’

The ABC report does include comments from safety activist Sean Kane, who cites a possible common thread, but it’s a telling risk that could apply to virtually all modern vehicles and perhaps should be investigated: Your car, like many other electronic devices, is never really turned off.

“A lot of the power to these electronic systems is going to remain on in the vehicle even when the vehicle’s off,” Kane told ABC. “And once the electrical system starts going, you’ve got plenty of combustibles under the hood.”

ABC has turned its incidents over to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has found no safety defect, but urges owners to report any problem here. A search today of NHTSA’s complaint database for 2000-17 model-year complaints with keywords “fire,” “BMW” and “parked” showed 76 complaints involving various components or no identified cause, some since incidents in the ABC report aired. But a similar search for other luxury makes also turned up complaints for Mercedes-Benz (49), Audi (17), Cadillac (21), Lexus (9) and Lincoln (19).

While fire risk is real, and one fire is way too many if it’s your garage, that number of complaints for millions of vehicles on the road does not seem to indicate an epidemic.

The ABC report also cites publicized BMW fire incidents in South Korea. But not all were parked, and some were traced to a fuel line leak that led to a recall. Of the rest, BMW said, “The incidents in Korea have been investigated, and it was determined that the majority were caused by unauthorized aftermarket modifications.”

The auto industry has well-earned skepticism about disclosure — as the GM ignition switch, Takata airbag and Volkswagen diesel recalls prove — but we’re not yet convinced in this case.

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Former D.C. Bureau Chief Fred Meier, who lives every day with Washington gridlock, has an un-American love of small wagons and hatchbacks. Email Fred Meier

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