Engine Fires Prompt BMW Recall in South Korea

BMW's Johann Ebenbichler says the automaker began investigating the engine fires in 2016. He identified the primary cause as a faulty EGR valve cooling device. Angry BMW owners say his statement implied the automaker knew about the problem but waited two years to make repairs and conduct a recall.

Vince Courtenay, Correspondent

August 10, 2018

4 Min Read
Transport Minister Kim studies BMW vehicle-inspection process at Korea Transportation Authority Safety Agency lab.
Transport Minister Kim studies BMW vehicle-inspection process at Korea Transportation Authority Safety Agency lab.

Four BMW vehicles have burst into flames in the past week in South Korea, bringing the total number of engine fires to 36 since the problem became public in January.

Police and the country’s Transport Ministry are investigating. BMW, blaming the fires on a defect in the vehicles’ exhaust-gas-recirculation system, will launch a voluntary recall of 106,317 diesel-powered vehicles covering 42 models on Aug. 20.

No injuries have been reported.

One of the two latest vehicles to catch fire was a 7-Series 730Ld, the other a 520d whose 4-cyl. engine has been involved in most of the fires.

Both vehicles were manufactured prior to the July 2012-January 2015 period stipulated in the recall BMW Korea first announced July 27. The number of engine fires at that time totaled 27.

Of the 36 reported engine fires, nine occurred in vehicles not named in the recall. Five of those nine vehicles were equipped with gasoline engines, not diesel engines covered by the recall. They include the 528i, 428i, 740i, 745i and Mini 5-door hatch. The others were equipped with diesel engines.

It was not immediately clear why BMWs with gasoline engines were not included in the recall.

Although the voluntary recall does not begin until Aug. 20, BMW Korea has been conducting inspections of vehicles identified in the program. As of midweek more than 40,000 vehicles had been inspected and 1,147 received replacements for defective parts.

BMW Korea held a news conference Tuesday, Aug. 7, at which Chairman Kim Hyo-jun (below, left) apologized for the engine fires and for creating widespread public concern about the safety of BMW vehicles.

Also present was Johann Ebenbichler, BMW Group vice president in charge of vehicle safety who flew in from Germany. Ebenbichler said BMW began investigating the engine fires in 2016. He identified the primary cause as a faulty EGR valve cooling device.

Ebenbichler’s statements angered some BMW owners who said they implied the automaker knew about the engine-fire problem two years before announcing inspections and a voluntary recall to alleviate it.

On Thursday, the same day on which the two latest engine fires occurred, 21 BMW owners filed an official complaint against the company at a police station in Seoul, asking for an immediate investigation into the engine fires. The complaint names six BMW executives and seeks to bring criminal charges against Kim, the BMW Korea chairman, and Ebenbichler.

The group, calling themselves “BMW victims,” is represented by Barum Law, which sued Volkswagen Korea on behalf of hundreds of plaintiffs affected by the 2015 VW Dieselgate software coverup. The firm says it also is handling individual lawsuits against the automaker.

A spokesman for the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency says the complaint has been turned over to its Sophisticated Crimes Investigation Unit because of the seriousness of the complaint and the possible personal impact on vehicle owners affected by the situation.


On Wednesday, when the engine-fire count was at 34, Minister of Land, Infrastructure and Transport Kim Hyun-mee went to the Automotive Safety Research Center to review the progress of the investigation. She told reporters she is considering issuing a suspension order that would ground all BMW vehicles for which there are engine-fire concerns. The Ministry has come under widespread criticism for not being more proactive in investigating the situation.

Kim says the fire hazard is amplified in South Korea because motorists must pass through many long tunnels. She also identified possible fires in parking structures and other public areas as another major hazard.

Another official at the ministry says if necessary, it will send a team of investigators to BMW headquarters in Germany to precisely determine the causes of the fires and how great a public threat exists, and whether the automaker has covered up the problem during the past two years. On Friday, Aug. 3, Kim’s vice minister, Son Byung-suk, issued a statement from her that urged owners to immediately stop driving BMW models identified in the recall.

This led to widespread confusion among BMW owners and others. It was interpreted word of mouth to mean owners of all BMWs, regardless of model, should stop driving their vehicles. A director at the Ministry had to issue a follow-up statement emphasizing Kim’s statement referred only to owners of vehicles identified in the recall.

Several parking structures in Seoul have barred all BMW vehicles from entering the facilities. Some condominium structures have done the same, preventing residents who own BMW vehicles from parking on their own shared property.

Although not as prevalent in other nations, the spate of engine fires in Korea led BMW to announce this week the recall of 323,000 vehicles throughout Europe. Included are 96,300 units in Germany, 75,000 in the U.K., 24,700 in Italy, and 23,500 in France.

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