Auto Outlook: NHTSA won't probe Tesla fire, Ford to cut platforms

By AL SWANSON, UPI Auto Writer  |  Oct. 27, 2013 at 5:31 AM
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The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is back at full staffing after the government shutdown but one of the things it doesn't plan to do is investigate the fire that totaled a pricey Tesla Model S sedan in early October.

Agency head David Strickland last week said NHTSA was gathering data and talking to Tesla about the fire, which was captured on a YouTube video that went viral.

The $70,000 all-electric Tesla was shown burning on a highway in Kent, Wash., near Seattle.

In his blog on the company's website, Tesla Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk said the Model S struck a large metal object at highway speed that punched through the quarter-inch thick metal armor plate under the car penetrating the front battery module.

He said the fire was contained by internal firewalls within the 1,000-pound, 16-module battery pack and that the blaze would have been much worse if the object had hit a traditional gasoline-powered car.

NHTSA is working through a backlog of complaints filed by consumers during the 16-day shutdown when most of its employees were idled, The Detroit News said. But the agency said Thursday it won't open an inquiry into the Model S fire.

"After reviewing all available data, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration hasn't found evidence at this time that would indicate the recent battery fire involving a Tesla Model S was the result of a vehicle safety defect or non-compliance with federal safety standards," a statement said.

The car's computer diagnostics warned the driver to pull over and exit the vehicle, which he did.

NHTSA also explained why Toyota is voluntarily recalling more than 800,000 2012-13 Camry, Camry Hybrid, Avalon, Avalon Hybrid and Venza models because their air bags could deploy randomly.

Toyota said the problem was a result of water from an air conditioning component that could leak onto the air bag control module, potentially affecting the air bags or the power steering.

NHTSA said Toyota warned spider webs could clog drain holes on the air conditioners' housing allowing water to buildup and leak onto an electronic module.

Toyota received two reports of inadvertent air bag deployments causing two minor injuries during the summer. It plans to fix the issue with additional sealing of the air conditioning unit and by adding a protective cover on the unit.

CR can't recommend Infiniti Q50, Lexus IS 250 sedans

Consumer Reports panned the redesigned Infinity Q50 and the Lexus IS 250, placing both upscale Japanese sedans near the bottom of its near-luxury list.

The respected consumer magazine, which boasts 8 million subscribers, said the Q50 is no match for the discontinued Infiniti G37.

"Handling is mundane, due in part to dull steering. The underwhelming driving experience strips the car of much of its sporty legacy," CR said in its review in the magazine's December issue. "The Q50 also doesn't ride well and isn't particularly quiet."

The review criticized the Q50's new InTouch dual screen controls as slow and the upscale car's interior as ordinary.

On the positive side, the $44,855 Q50 scored a "very good" overall on the magazine's road test for its quickness, even with the heavier all-wheel-drive system. But the all-new sedan ended up near the bottom of the magazine's rankings for sporty and upscale sedans.

"The Infinity G has been one of Consumer Reports' highest-rated sedans for many years, but after its 2014 redesign and transition to the new Q designation, this car seems to have lost its way," said Jake Fisher, director of automotive testing in a statement.

Fisher said the Lexus IS 250 rated "good" on the overall road test but CR deemed the sedan "neither sporty nor luxurious" with the V-6 all-wheel-drive model called noisy, lacking acceleration and posting poor fuel economy.

The $43,823 Lexus IS 250 averaged about 21 mpg combined city-highway driving in CR's road tests.

"Lexus IS handing is short on finesse, with vague-feeling steering that doesn't telegraph much feedback," the magazine's review said.

CR failed to recommend either car and both finished lower than the Lincoln MKZ 2.0 EcoBoost, BMW 328i, Mercedes-Benz C250 and Volvo S60 T5.

The CR reviews can be viewed at:

Ford to cut platforms, boost production

If there was any question of the impact of the auto industry on the global economy Ford's purchasing strategy should settle the matter.

The Dearborn, Mich., automaker says it will spend more than $100 billion as it works to boost production from about 5.7 million vehicles a year to some 8 million annually by 2015.

New technology and higher mileage standards are driving the U.S. automaker's spending, said Hau Thai-Tang, 46, who was named Ford group vice president, global purchasing, in August. About two-thirds of Ford's spending is a result of manufacturing costs.

Ford is actively marketing in India and China these days but its main markets remain North America, South America and Europe.

"You won't see disproportionate growth in terms of low-cost countries," Tang told The Detroit News.

Ford has trimmed development costs of new vehicles and is trying to cut the number of suppliers by more than a third as it reduces the number of vehicle platforms.

In 2007, Ford made vehicles on 27 platforms. That number is down to 14 and the News says Ford wants to get the number platforms down to nine by 2017.

That means more cars and trucks sharing components to keep product development costs down.

The strategy may be the ticket in a not-too-distant future where sales in dozens of smaller non-traditional markets could rival sales in established markets, a study released by the Boston Consulting Group concludes.

Nikolaus Lang, lead author of "Beyond BRIC: Winning the Rising Auto Markets," predicts 88 countries -- excluding the United States and China -- could be responsible for 20 percent of worldwide vehicle sales by 2020, accounting for 21 million vehicles a year.

Many of the non-BRIC [Brazil, Russia, India and China] countries currently have vehicle sales of less than 10,000 units a year but some like Indonesia are nearing 1 million annual vehicle sales.

Wait for new Jeep Cherokee is over

Chrysler began shipments of 2014 Jeep Cherokees to dealers last week.

The Cherokee was supposed to hit showrooms at the end of September but introduction of the mid-size sport-utility vehicle was delayed first so Chrysler could fix quality problems and then to reprogram the Jeep's German-designed nine-speed transmission.

The Jeep Cherokee, which replaced the slow-selling Jeep Liberty, is an important vehicle for Chrysler, which positioned the vehicle in the popular small crossover utility segment between the Wrangler and the Grand Cherokee.

Production began in June but was twice halted to deal with quality issues.

At full production about 50 Cherokees an hour can roll off the assembly line at Chrysler's Toledo, Ohio, Assembly Complex -- 18 hours a day.

Starting prices for the new Jeep range from $22,995 for the entry-level Sport model to $29,495 for the trail-rated Trailhawk model.

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