Canada Slow to Realize Something Might Be Wrong With 2008 Smart Cars

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems

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.

Steph Willems
Steph Willems

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  • I_like_stuff I_like_stuff on Dec 31, 2017

    Don't all those fires make Mother Gaia cough?

    • Sub-600 Sub-600 on Dec 31, 2017

      No, but the smoke alerts polar bears as to where a meal may be walking back to town.

  • Indi500fan Indi500fan on Dec 31, 2017

    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.

    • Lorenzo Lorenzo on Jan 02, 2018

      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.

  • Daniel J Until we get a significant charging infrastructure and change times get under 10 minutes, yes
  • Mike I own 2 gm 6.2 vehicles. They are great. I do buy alot of gas. However, I would not want the same vehicles if they were v6's. Jusy my opinion. I believe that manufacturers need to offer engine options for the customer. The market will speak on what the consumer wants.For example, I dont see the issue with offering a silverado with 4cyl , 6 cyl, 5.3 v8, 6.2 v8, diesel options. The manufacturer will charge accordingly.
  • Mike What percentage of people who buy plug in hybrids stop charging them daily after a few months? Also, what portion of the phev sales are due to the fact that the incentives made them a cheaper lease than the gas only model? (Im thinking of the wrangler 4xe). I wish there was a way to dig into the numbers deeper.
  • CEastwood If it wasn't for the senior property tax freeze in NJ I might complain about this raising my property taxes since most of that tax goes to the schools . I'm not totally against EVs , but since I don't drive huge miles and like to maintain my own vehicles they are not practical especially since I keep a new vehicle long term and nobody has of yet run into the cost of replacing the battery on an EV .
  • Aquaticko Problem with PHEV is that, like EVs, they still require a behavioral change over ICE/HEV cars to be worth their expense and abate emissions (whichever is your goal). Studies in the past have shown that a lot of PHEV drivers don't regularly plug-in, meaning they're just less-efficient HEVs.I'm left to wonder how big a battery a regular HEV could have without needing to be a PHEV.