By on December 30, 2017

smart fire

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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30 Comments on “Canada Slow to Realize Something Might Be Wrong With 2008 Smart Cars...”

  • avatar
    Add Lightness

    ‘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’

    Canada got the CDi diesel Smart Car which is pretty close to equaling the Honda Insight1 as the most fuel efficient car ever brought to North America.
    There is an Eco version of the new Prius which is about equal but so far it is a Unicorn.

  • avatar

    Two points:

    1) In defiance of the reflexive mileage bashing by lazy writers seeking a cheap shot, the Smart had class-leading city mileage ratings. Which is the only metric relevant to a car designed and intended for relatvely low-speed city/urban usage.

    2) Fuel mileage is and always was a secondary design target. Cars like this exist to have the smallest possible footprint. It’s hilarious how often you get “but you could get a bigger car for the same money/mileage”. In the design context, bigger is worse.

    • 0 avatar

      Good point. When American cities get as clogged as London, there will have to be parking lots on the periphery and city cars to switch to. The problem is people are too lazy to do that, and won’t use public transit unless it’s free, and for many not even then.

      Free enterprise will put needed facilities in satellite locations so nobody will have to enter big cities again. That’s the new model: suburbia over central cores. Social scientists want us in tiny boxes in central cities served by mass transit, but all they’re doing is trying to re-create 19th century Manhattan tenement living.

      • 0 avatar

        “The problem is people are too lazy to do that, and won’t use public transit unless it’s free, and for many not even then.”

        It’s not a problem. People simply choose to be comfortable in their car vs packed in like sardines on a bus.

        • 0 avatar

          Funny, whenever I pass a bus, I usually see 3-4 people in it, not enough to pay the driver’s salary. Then again, I live in southern California, where most of the mass transit goes from suburbs to downtown, where the government offices are.

      • 0 avatar
        Arthur Dailey

        @Lorenzo: what you propose regarding ‘relocation’ was the model of the 1950’s to 1990’s. That has now been changed to increased urbanization, a move back into city cores and greater density. Not just in major cities like Toronto and Vancouver, but also cities such as Calgary that has more than enough room to expand its suburbs and ‘bedroom communities’.

  • avatar

    European carmakers sure are innovative. They came up with biodegradable insulation that biodegrades while your car is parked (if rodents haven’t already eaten it). And critical engine parts made of plastic that fail after a couple of years. Now flammable heat shielding.

  • avatar

    Why bother investigating when your neighbor to the South already is? Not likely to be a different cause.

    And I just love numbers with no context. *5* cars caught on fire in Ontario. But out of how many total? What is the rate for other cars? Where a lot more 2008s sold than other years?

    • 0 avatar

      You sure want a lot of details. This is TTAC, not 60 Minutes, and Steph just reports ’em, he doesn’t have an investigative crew. And what he’s reporting is a government agency that does have an investigative crew, and whose job is to investigate, isn’t investigating.

  • avatar

    Yer debating the merits of a tin box that gets a whopping 1 mpg better than a 2002 LaSabre?
    And claiming it’s a novel and noteworthy vehicle because it has a small footprint. ?
    Well I’ve got a deeeeeal for you. Tons and tons of great wonderful marvelous land … cheap!… great location between Disney World
    and Miami… and best of all… it’s only got 2 feet of water over it. I’m in. Sign me up.
    Yeah … same for that Smart Car… Wadda deal.
    Sign me up.

  • avatar

    Best or nothing. In this case nothing is safer. Honestly, this car never was tested by DB? Or maybe they did not test it on freeway, never supposed to be driven on freeway.

  • avatar

    I haven’t searched lately, but there used to be plenty of YouTube videos of burning Smarts, in the US, Canada, and Europe. I hope the NHTSA can get to the bottom of this – I don’t have anything against the Smart cars, at least the first-gen cars. The new ones just plain ugly.

  • avatar

    Potentially degraded wiring and flammable heat shielding. Dad would have loved these cars, but he also liked to put pennies in the fuse box and stored oily rags next to the furnace.

  • avatar

    For a car designed for the city, there are still a ton of older ones in rural driveways and used as highway commuters.

  • avatar

    These are common sights on the German Autobahns. They will generally stick to the slow lane as their top speed is around 130 km/h.

  • avatar

    Don’t all those fires make Mother Gaia cough?

  • avatar

    There’s a zombie Smart store here in central Indiana.
    It’s kind of like the K Marts.
    The lights are on, but you never notice any people as you drive past.

    • 0 avatar

      There are a lot of dealerships like that. They let you in from a side door from the maintenance bay where they’re looking over your trade-in. You’re out of sight in a cubicle and they’re giving you a hard sell, refusing to give back your license or car keys until you agree to buy the car they offered instead of the one you wanted. Then the sales manager turns down the sales contract and demands more money, then the loan manager turns down the financing until you agree to a higher loan rate, and a bigger down payment, because your trade-in is worth less than low blue book. You’re out of sight the whole time, because they don’t want you frantically signalling to passersby.

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