By on May 20, 2017

2014 Hyundai Sonata

The timeliness of a recall of Hyundai and Kia vehicles equipped with Theta II four-cylinder engines is the focus of a formal National Highway Traffic Safety Administration investigation revealed today.

Metal engine debris resulting from a faulty production process is behind the expansive recall of nearly 1.7 million vehicles, but the NHTSA wants to know if the recall expanded too slowly. Just how much Hyundai knew about the widespread issue is a big question mark, made all the more pressing by the testimony of a company whistleblower.

According to Reuters, filings published today show the NHTSA opened an investigation on May 18th into “both the timeliness and scope” of the recalls, as well as Hyundai’s “compliance with reporting requirements.”

The automaker has stated it will cooperate with the investigation.

The issue facing older 2.4-liter and turbocharged 2.0-liter Theta II powerplants involves metal shavings surrounding the crankshaft of the engines. That debris can contaminate the engine oil, leading to restricted oil circulation, component wear, and the potential for engine failure.

While the recalls eventually covered numerous Hyundai and Kia vehicles in the U.S., Canada and South Korea, the company appears to have been slow to address the problem. The first recall, in 2015, involved just 470,000 Sonata sedans sold in the U.S., despite the exact same engine appearing in other models. Earlier this year, the company recalled a slew of 2013 and 2014 Sonata and Santa Fe vehicles, while Kia called back over half a million 2011-2014 model year Optima, Sorento and Sportage models to address the engine debris problem.

A former longtime Hyundai engineer, Kim Gwang-ho, has loomed over the issue since the recalls began. Last August, Kim delivered a stack of internal documents to the NHTSA, explaining his concerns that the problem was far more widespread than the automaker let on. The engineer claims to have attended a July 2015 meeting in Seoul where colleagues discussed downplaying the problem to avoid a huge repair bill.

The latest recall has cost the company $322 million.

[Image: Hyundai]

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44 Comments on “NHTSA Opens Investigation into Hyundai’s Theta II Engine Debris Recalls...”


  • avatar
    RedRocket

    Shoddy quality and poor engineering on a Hyundai product? I’m shocked, shocked I tells ya.

  • avatar

    Yesterday, I witnessed a late model Elantra driving maniacally through Burbank, wielding the mandatory Uber and Lyft stickers which seemingly come stock on that car.

    As the “driver” cut-in a few cars ahead, just out of my view to make a right; the car let out a smoke screen that would rival only Spy Hunter….such a voluminous plume of smoke that it became unsafe for others turning right.

    It was at the next traffic light where I attempted to alert the driver that his car was smoking, however, the driver was indisposed as he mimed the mumbles from his loud Trap music. i.e. music with the high hats that sound like an impact Rotor Sprinkler Head. ticktickticketytick tick tick tick tick.

    The “driver” proceeded onto the CA 134 on-ramp at WOT, likely in a hurry to pick up a fare, but I doubt that car will/did go many more miles.

    • 0 avatar
      don1967

      The “smokescreen” is a Hyundai-basher’s wet dream, but harmless as far as the car is concerned.

      Over time the PCV system allows a teaspoon or so of oil to accumulate in the intake plenum, which is then randomly burned off under hard acceleration. My daughter’s Elantra has done it once in 6 years, but runs like a top and does not consume any measurable quantity of oil between changes.

  • avatar
    slavuta

    In the good old days we used to say, “You get what you paid for”

    • 0 avatar
      jpolicke

      Apparently buyers of Z06 Corvettes and Porsches with bad IMS bearings didn’t pay enough either.

      • 0 avatar

        I think the good ‘ol days he referred to, predates the 996, and Z06 you are citing.

        Collinear with your examples, I would also submit the e46 M3 con-rod Bearings, inferior engine timing units aka “VANOS”, and the paper thin rear subframe mounting points, as they too are appalling examples of the anti-thesis to “You get what you paid for” that is assuming the good ol’days were ten or fifteen years ago…IMO they were not, only just better—of course by comparison to today,

      • 0 avatar
        JohnTaurus

        A few low-production, near-supercars = millions of mainstream cars owned by many on a tight budget?

        Yeah, that seems like a fair comparison.

        It might be kind of forgivable if Hyundai and Kia didn’t have so many other long-term reliability issues. Ask some first and second gen Sedona owners, maybe find someone with a mid-00’s Sonata/Optima that blows its engine at 112,000 miles while most any modern Honda, GM, Ford, Toyota or even VW will still be running fine when the odometer reads twice that.

        I hesitate to mention Chrysler products (despite the decent Pentastar), since a lot of the utter crap they produced in the past decade or so also had that harsh, unreliable, unrefined “World Engine” 4 cylinder developed jointly with Hyundai and Mitsubishi. Talk about the blind-leading-the-blind. They still don’t have a 4 cylinder that’s worth a crap. At least they’ll stop building FWD junk sedans, I guess its up to the Fiatsler Jeep CUVs to take their spot as the junk people who know cars avoid like the plague, but non-car people love until the warranty runs out and everything starts falling apart at 10x the rate of anything else. At least they’re more profitable and hopefully won’t stack up in empty parking lots…OH WAIT, they cant, those spots are occupied by der Führer’s nasty diesels.

        I also failed on purpose to mention Nissan. Weak timing chains, CVT hell, even reliability of the traditional automatic in the older ’02 Altima+ was crap, so are the engines. I see two types of modern Nissans with over 75k on the interwebs for sale: Just had a bunch of work done, and needs a bunch of work done. “New transmission, new fuel pump, engine makes loud noise, $700” lol at least they bought a quality Japanese car instead of some piece of junk!

        Of course all automakers have their bright spots and their dark spots. I saw a much-ballyhooed Toyota Corolla with “engine knocks” and 64,000 on its odometer (and the car looked it) today. A few bad apples here and there are a given in mass production and design.

        Honda’s was its V-6 automatic transaxles, Ford’s was also FWD transaxles (now limited to the PowerShift DCT, which I’d still take over a ZF 9 speed) and the 4.0L SOHC timing chains, etc. But their modern stuff like the 3.5L, 3.7L, 3.5L EcoBoost, 5.0L, etc have all been very reliable, as is the 6AT hooked to the FWD V-6 models, and the RWD transmissions in other applications.

        Point being, most automakers have improved considerably as of late. Nissan, Hyundai/Kia and FCA are backsliding. Well, Nissan is the backslider, the rest have usually been junk all along.

        My brother bought a 2016 Ford Fusion S yesterday with 17k on it. It replaces both his GMC truck, who’s engine finally gave up (locked up due to lack of oil) at nearly 400k miles, and an 01 Altima that has 283k but is having issues and is no longer reliable.

        I told him when he set out to not let ANYONE talk him into a newer Altima. You will NOT get the service out of it that you got from the 2001!

        (2001 was the last year for the smaller Nissan Bluebird-based Altima, before we got an “Americanized Altima” that brings out the worst in American cars by having terrible driving dynamics, over-done styling that looks tired in 5 years ((90s Grand Am anyone?)) failure-prone drivetrain, noisy and cheap interior, saggy rear suspension ((many examples, notably Taurus/Sable gen 4, 00-07)), generally low quality like door handles snapping off, and a rental car persona.)

        He went to a Ford dealer first, the guy was pushy and tried to get him into a new SUV, “some kind Hyundai hatchback” they said, and a Dodge Challenger. He came there looking for a decent, comfortable commuter. The salesman was an idiot. Other than a new SUV which he didn’t need or want, everything he shows them was 1) not a Ford product, and 2) junk.

        He went next door to the Chevy dealer, drove the Tuxedo Black Fusion, loved it, drove an equivalent Malibu, disliked it, and then bought the Fusion. He got it for somewhere around $15k OTD. He said it drives much better, looks much better, and is more comfortable than the Malibu, which had more options (didn’t mention it’s price, but it obviously wasn’t spectacular enough to swing the pendulum in its favor).

        His Fusion is the base model, but it’ll be a reliable, safe, comfortable commuter for him, which is exactly what he needed. He’s quite tall and didn’t really fit in the old Altima too well (originally bought for his wife), but has plenty of room in the Fusion. He said he is surprised at how sporty it is for just a midsize car.

        I have no doubt it’ll still be running for a very, very long time.

  • avatar

    There wasn’t necessarily a comparison between Hyundai Porsche and Corvette, it seems like they were invoked as converse examples to the old adage: “you get what you pay for”

    • 0 avatar
      JohnTaurus

      I understand, but my counter-point was (and I’m sorry it led to a rant of sorts haha, it was directed more at the automakers and buying public than you) that those examples, while expensive, are generally the exception and even more outstanding since the issues were limited to low-production, high-performance sports cars, which are generally known to be more finicky than most cheaper, mainstream cars.

      I’m sure his point was, you may pay a little more for a Fusion, Accord or Camry, but for that extra money (which is increasingly smaller and smaller differences as far as MSRP, as Hyundai/Kia have become cocky thinking they no longer need a price advantage, although this is frequently made up for with heavy incentives as reality sets in and people won’t pay Honda money for a Hyundai) you have the peace of mind knowing that although you don’t have a 10 year warranty, you probably won’t need it anyway.

      • 0 avatar
        4drSedan

        John Taurus and the rest of B&B, I have a serious question for you.

        Do any cars made today that a ‘normal’ person can afford not suck?

        Seriously, this is what I’ve concluded by reading TTAC and the B&B,

        Acura – A shadow of their former driver focused selves, expensive
        Audi – Never buy, only lease, repairs will kill you + expensive
        BMW – No longer the ultimate driving machine + see Audi above
        Chrysler – Transportation for the “Carnival Cruise” set, Unreliable
        Honda – Loud, paint will peel within 5 years
        Hyundai – Horrible dealer experience, reliability issues, cheapness, dealers will try to avoid warranty work
        Jeep – Reliability (it’s a Chrysler)
        Kia – Cheap interior, wonky suspension setups – see Hyundai
        Lexus – Can’t think of any except expensive
        Mazda – Sparse dealer network, under powered, noisy, rust
        Mercedes – See all other German makes above
        Mini – Worst reliability record of any
        Nissan – NVH, unrefined, long tern reliability
        Porsche – Can’t afford (That’s my problem)
        Toyota – Bo-Ring, outdated technology except the Prius, cheapo interiors
        VW – It will let you down and cost lots in the process, Awful dealer experience, reluctant to do warranty work

        • 0 avatar
          NomNomChomsky

          Notice how Ford isn’t on your list? Look at the Ford Fusion. It’s a great midsize car. It is available with a range of powertrains from economical to sporty.

          Also Subaru is not on your list. The current lineup has some quirks, and you’ll probably need to do head gaskets sooner or later because it’s a downfall of boxer engines. They are still great cars.

        • 0 avatar
          gtemnykh

          4dr I’d say some of the stuff on your list has been dealt with. Namely the Koreans in the last 2 years or so have figured out their suspension tuning (from what I’ve experienced in rentals this year). Kia interiors are about par for the course within their respective classes IMO. I wouldn’t particularly ding Nissan long term reliability either relative to the car-scape as a whole. Mazda rust: we’ll see. By the sound of it the bodies should be better than the Proteges and 3s we all see with rotten rear quarter panels. But the hardware and various under-car components sound like they are still quite rust prone (various brackets, brake hardware, etc). Honda and Mazda are making strides in the NVH department, and there is hope that Subaru exorcised the headgasket demons once and for all from their FB series motors.

          There’s no silver bullet perfect car that is the best in every metric (fun, reliable, interior quality, affordable, etc), you’ve got to weigh priorities. The good news is that overall the reliability playing field is more even than it ever has been overall, with a few regressions (paint thickness/quality on many Japanese makes).

          If it’s gotta be reliability above all else, I’d direct you to your nearest Toyota dealer. If performance is on par for the class, then how can the ‘outdated’ (read: proven/reliable) technology be a bad thing? My favorite example is the 4Runner with its “outdated” 5spd auto and 4.0L V6 that can match a Pentastar+8spd Grand Cherokee in acceleration.

          I’ve actually started to kind of appreciate Hyundais more as of late, the latest revision of the Sonata and Elantra are both fantastically competent (if not exciting) automobiles. Great MPG, comfortable, and yes good ride/handling balance.

          As much valid reason as there is to be highly suspect of FCA/Chrysler vehicles, they present a fantastic bang for the buck and drive quite well. I really like the 8spd Charger, Ram with the 5.7L Hemi+8spd, and even the “old” Grand Caravan. I had a “GT” Grand Caravan for a rental last week and was quite smitten by it.

        • 0 avatar

          It leaves us with Ford, Lincoln, Chevy, Buick, Cadillac, anything GM actually and Subaru, all of which has no complaints filed against them.

          As a Ford Fusion owner I personally recommend Ford, or Lincoln if you want fancier. If you want 4WD buy Subaru SUV. You are covered man.

          • 0 avatar
            SPPPP

            If GM was left off the “carmakers with issues” list, it could only be because they bored the listmaker into forgetting about them. GM has gotten busted for quality issues including the ignition switch debacle, but it also dodged a huge bullet when the NHTSA let it off the hook for sub-par corrosion protection on undercar lines. Not inconsequential things, but critical safety systems like brake lines, fuel lines, and transmission fluid lines were coated with “terne” coating that was either insufficiently thick, or of poor quality. Numerous vehicles experienced brake failure within a few years. I think this is one of the reasons that early 2000s GM vehicles have been disappearing from the roads quickly.

        • 0 avatar
          JimZ

          “Do any cars made today that a ‘normal’ person can afford not suck?”

          yes, all of them. What an entitled bunch of whiners we all have become. Cars made today can be universally expected to start every time, get you where you need to go (and back) every time, all with a minimum of fuss. Today a car which “sucks” is one where the transmission shifts weirdly, or doesn’t handle/drive as well as others, or had a check engine light come on once or twice.

          in days of yore, “good” cars needed yearly tuneups, suffered regular blowouts of their bias-ply tires, couldn’t always be counted on to start (God help you if you inadvertently flooded your engine on a cold day) and had visible rust holes in the body by the time they were four years old.

  • avatar
    RHD

    I wonder how much of the harmful metal could have been removed from the engine with a simple magnetic oil drain plug…
    I once changed the fluid and filter on a Chrysler minivan with a magnetic drain plug. It had removed an impressive amount of fine metal from the fluid. That’s a great part to NOT cheap out on.

    • 0 avatar
      xtoyota

      engines are made of aluminium ….magnets won’t help

      • 0 avatar
        Scoutdude

        Engine blocks and heads may not be made of aluminum but cranks are still iron and it the debris from machining the crank that is the source of the problem. So yes a magnetic drain plug could have helped. The problem is that it would probably be too late anyway. It was left in the oil passages in the crank so the oil flow would carry it to the bearings on start up and a lot of the damage would be done then. However once it is flushed out of the bearings the magnetic drain plug could catch it before it goes through the oil pump. After the oil pump the filter should catch most of it. Then it is just a matter of time until the bearings experience premature failure.

  • avatar
    aquaticko

    Stuff like this will probably keep happening until someone who actually cares about cars takes over the conglomerate. The Hyundai chaebol’s largest component–by far–is the automotive division, yet Chung Mong-koo has done absolutely nothing to demonstrate any interest in cars. The corporate apathy towards them percolates from above, and that’s why nonsense like this happens from a company which has the resources to do better, and ought to know better.

  • avatar
    nels0300

    Sheesh…that’s a big recall. I guess the ol’ change your oil at 500 miles on a brand new car might’ve actually had some truth for these Hyundais.

    Wonder what they’re going to do, how will they know which engines are trash?

    Of course something like this happens after Hyundai makes something I’m interested in, Elantra Sport, and I finally have the balls to buy a Hyundai….they’re good now they say. I never thought I’d buy a Hyundai, coming from a long line of Hondas, Mazdas, Toyotas.

    I DID just change the oil at 1,500 miles, saw a bunch of little silver things in the oil. Is that bad?

    Just kidding!!!

    Lol, if she blows, please make it in a few years at 70K, new engine, perfect time for a honkin’ turbo.

  • avatar
    ajla

    “turbocharged 2.0-liter” … ” the potential for engine failure.”

    Mmmmmm. I need a cigarette now.

    I hope every Lambda and Tau engine runs until the Sun novas.

    • 0 avatar
      nels0300

      I understand where you’re coming from, being leery of little DI turbos myself, but this isn’t even about that.

      It’s about junk from manufacturing not being properly removed. Pretty amazing they did that for 1.7M vehicles.

      Honda just had a boo boo as well with their NA 2.0L in the Civics, but they caught it after ~40K vehicles.

      • 0 avatar
        ajla

        I will say that this situation has made it considerably less likely that I’ll spend $55K on a Genesis in the next year.

        • 0 avatar
          nels0300

          I don’t know, I think a Genesis would be fine, these were all Alabama engines. But still, it speaks to Hyundai’s manufacturing oversight and controls.

          I say this coming out of a 2014.5 Camry V6 that I traded on a Hyundai because the Camry’s transmission was shuddering and I didn’t want to deal with it. Turns out it’s a known issue.

          In buying a Camry, I thought I bought one of the most perfect, bullet-proof cars you could buy, a NA, port injected Toyota, and in return I would put up with it being a little boring….but nope. Shuddering auto trans.

          • 0 avatar
            gtemnykh

            nels I’ve read about the trans thing a bit on the forums, my wife’s ’12 SE 4cyl is still on the factory fill, drives just fine. We did have it called in for a reflash a few years ago, not sure if that may have helped?

          • 0 avatar
            nels0300

            It had been to the dealer, and I’ve read the forums.

            I was just tired of having an automatic, I didn’t really want one in the first place, and the shudder issue just reinforced my belief that modern automatics are more fragile than manual transmissions.

            I realize I’m trading potential DI turbo issues for the automatic issues, but those are easier and cheaper to deal with.

          • 0 avatar
            gtemnykh

            nels I think part of the problem with the latest automatics is that they’ve been tuned to death for MPG. In that they will keep the torque converters locked down to really low RPM and higher loads. I kind of like having less of that “slushy” feeling and more of a direct link, but at the same time I feel like this latest trend is causing more driveability issues. My ’96 ES300 that I had for a while had a butter-smooth shifting 4spd auto transmission with 209k on the clock. ATF and filter had been changed as necessary, everything seemed to be in perfect health.

          • 0 avatar
            nels0300

            I think you’re 100% correct.

            The Toyota 6 speed ALWAYS wants to be in the tallest gear possible. It can make even the 2GR-FE feel sluggish.

            And in traffic, it’s constantly shifting, it has 6 gears to pick from. When you’re creeping along in traffic, it’s not smart enough to just keep in 2nd or 3rd….it wants to be in 4th, or 5th, and therefore be an unresponsive slug.

            I’ve always had manuals, so this drove me nuts.

            AND…it has “lifetime” fluid, and if you want to change it, it’s a huge PITA.

            The shudder was the last straw.

            This manual transmission Hyundai will tide me over until an electric car…or another manual transmission if they’re still available.

  • avatar
    RS

    Hyundai has their shavings. Toyota, Honda and GM have their oil burners and chain eaters. It’s tough finding a decent used vehicle these days.

  • avatar
    VW4motion

    Hyundai never did make a super smooth running engine.

    Maybe Hyundai didn’t put a big enough magnet at the bottom of the oil pan. Or just not as big as other automakers magnet.

  • avatar

    When the last 2.4l Sonata lurches into the junkyard, its owner will be driven home in an Impala…

    • 0 avatar
      gtemnykh

      I wouldn’t necessarily count on it, the 3.6s are starting to have some pattern timing chain issues.

      • 0 avatar
        ajla

        Where are you seeing a systematic failure of the LFX or LGX engines? Googling around I see a handful of claimed issues at higher mileage, but nothing more numerous than I see on forums related to Hemis or Vortecs or Duratecs.

        The earlier LY7 and LLT versions definitely look like timebombs, but if I had a newer code example I don’t think I’d lose sleep over it.

        • 0 avatar
          gtemnykh

          ajla you’re right, I had mistaken the DI 3.6Ls as all being more or less the same thing. I’m mostly thinking of the Lambda applications and the 08-12 Malibu. Having said that, Zackman had a t-chain replacement on his LFX ’12 W body Impala at 80k miles. I’m confident this wasn’t the case with Zackman’s ride, but I think on average, the W-body application of the LFX has the cards stacked against it in terms of timing chain longevity simply by the fact that the second and third owners of these cars are rather predisposed of neglecting oil changes and not using a high quality synthetic as I would say a high tech motor like that deserves. These modern single row, long (driving overhead cams), friction-optimized timing chains are really intolerant of poor oiling IMO. Cast iron OHV 3800s these new GM 3.6s are not (for better and for worse).

  • avatar

    And in other news – another Samsung cellphone exploded causing owner to run for cover. Samsung denies that any of its cellphones is capable of catching fire and exploding and blames owner for not handling phone properly.

  • avatar
    don1967

    We once owned a Hyundai Veracruz (3.8 V6) which produced a toenail-clipping-sized metal spiral at the first oil drain; clearly leftover debris from the manufacturing process.

    In theory this sort of thing is “normal”, and one of the reasons to do your first oil change promptly. Still, it’s not very confidence-inspiring.

    • 0 avatar
      JimZ

      no, that’s not “normal.” the stated problem (machining debris in the crankshaft) means said debris has already gone through the bearings and done its damage before the oil filter can screen it out.

      • 0 avatar
        SPPPP

        Actually, if I read the story of the recall notice correctly, the manufacturing debris came from crankshaft machining, and so it was in the crankshaft oil passages when they arrived at final assembly. So in this case, not only is it moving through the engine before it can be filtered … but it can do damage whether or not it ever passes over the bearing surfaces. It can restrict oil flow in the very small passages through the crankshaft, starving the bearings of oil and indirectly destroying them.

    • 0 avatar
      brettc

      That’s not normal at all. That’s a lack of quality control, or else Hyundai put Astroglide in for the factory fill.

  • avatar
    IBx1

    Funny, when they came out with their big warranty, everyone started preaching how reliable their new cars were. Not only is their warranty itself unreliable, but as I always said, you can’t call a car reliable until they’re 5-10 years old and the data is in.


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