Canada Slow to Realize Something Might Be Wrong With 2008 Smart Cars
Maybe it’s the Hoth-like climate and the urge to do anything in one’s power to warm it up, but Canada has so far taken a laid-back approach to the fires plaguing older Smart Fortwo models. A big part of the problem is that no one’s telling the country’s transportation regulator about them.
The models bursting into flames in the Great White North are of the same vintage as those which sparked an investigation by the United States’ National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. However, Transport Canada has yet to open a defect investigation of its own.
Tiny, offbeat, and now entirely anachronistic, Smart Fortwos remain on North American roads despite the advent of larger vehicles that can carry far more people while consuming the same amount of fuel. And, like many larger vehicles — including some from BMW and Ford — these tiny contraptions sometimes leave the earth in a pillar of fire.
There’s five Smart Fortwo fires on the books just in the province of Ontario, and three of those fires occurred just in the past year. Of the five, at least four were 2008 models.
According to CBC, Transport Canada was only aware of two of those fires. One owner, Hovinga Bisset, contacted the regulator in July after her ’08 Fortwo began belching smoke from its engine compartment while parked outside a thrift shop. She never heard back from Transport Canada or Smart distributor Mercedes-Benz Canada. By this time, the U.S. had already opened an investigation into 2008 and 2009 Smarts, upgrading the probe to an engineering analysis in September of this year.
In its summary, the NHTSA writes:
On December 16, 2016, the Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) opened Preliminary Evaluation PE16-016 to investigate eight complaints alleging incidents of engine compartment fire while driving or shortly after engine shutdown in model year (MY) 2008 through 2009 Smart Fortwo vehicles. The complaints appeared to indicate an increasing trend, with all eight fires occurring since January 2015.
The agency goes on to say, “To date, ODI’s analysis of incidents reported by consumers and provided by Mercedes has identified 27 incidents of open flame fires originating in the engine compartments of the subject vehicles.”
Following an inquiry by Canada’s public broadcaster, Transport Canada said it was aware of two incidents — a 2008 Smart that caught fire on an Ottawa freeway in October, and Bisset’s incident, which it concluded was “not due to a safety defect.” That came as news to Bisset.
At the time, Bisset had just had her muffler replaced at a private shop. The shop’s owner, Rick Weber, collected the smoking car and removed engine bay insulation that had fallen on top of the muffler. “It’s a little strange that the material that’s in the car to protect the cab from the heat of the muffler, if it comes in contact with the muffler, that it would start to burn and smoke and potentially cause a fire,” Weber told CBC.
Interestingly, after Bisset contacted the NHTSA about the incident, an investigator called her the next day.
Transport Canada claims it made its decision “based on the details supplied by the owner and the circumstances under which the incident occurred.” The agency doesn’t interest itself in defects caused by a repair. Still, Weber doesn’t feel his repair work could be wholly responsible for the fire. Another Smart Fortwo in the shop at the same time showed similar deterioration in the car’s heat insulation. After seeing what happened to Bisset’s car, he trimmed back the falling material.
In another incident three years ago, the owner of a Smart Fortwo learned that motorists driving along Highway 400 north of Toronto called the police after seeing smoke trailing from the rear of his car. After parking at a rest area, the unsuspecting owner returned from grabbing a coffee to find his car engulfed in flames. Neither the owner nor his insurance company ever reported the fire to Transport Canada.
While several Smart fires have escaped the regulator’s attention, the most recent case hasn’t. A Smart Fortwo of undetermined age caught fire while driving in Ottawa on December 11th; Transport Canada is now working with the local fire department to determine a cause.
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