Mazda Ignition Switch Fire Risk Results in Massive Recall of Older Vehicles

Over 1.3 million Mazda vehicles sold throughout the 1990s are being recalled due to a risk that the ignition switches may short circuit and cause a vehicle fire, with the action coming decades after the auto maker first learned about the potential problem.

The Mazda ignition switch recall (PDF) was announced by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) on October 22, following a field investigation and at least two reported vehicle fires caused by the accumulation of grease at the contact points inside the ignition switch. To date, no injuries have been reported to NHTSA.

The vehicles date back as far as the 1989 model year, and the risk extends to some vehicles sold in the 1998 model year.

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It appears that Mazda received their first field report involving a short circuit causing smoke from the ignition port in May 2001, with a reported vehicle fire linked to the issue surfacing in Japan in April 2002. Mazda failed to determine the source of the problem, and the investigation apparently continued for nearly 15 years until the auto maker decided to conduct a safety recall this month.

According to a press release issued by Mazda, the vehicles are being recalled due to an excessive amount of grease applied by the manufacturer at the contact points inside of the ignition switch assembly.

Based on Mazda’s investigation of the two reports of smoke and fire, the result of use and time may cause the excessive grease to carbonize around the contact points reducing the electrical insulation performance inside of the switch. As a result of the carbonization, the continuous use may lead the contact points to become conductive and overheat the switch, resulting in a short circuit that may lead to smoke and fires.

While no injuries or accidents have been linked to the recall, the ignition switch short circuits do pose a risk of vehicle fires. However, the issue is most likely to lead to a smoking ignition switch that will not allow the vehicle to start. Mazda indicates that if the vehicle does start, the driver is not at risk of the vehicle shutting off because the defect does not affect vehicle drivability or operation once the ignition has been turned on.

The vehicles being recalled are Mazda MPV models from 1989 to 1998, Mazda 323 models from 1990 to 1995, Mazda Protégé models from 1990 to 1998, Mazda MX-3 models from 1992 to 1993, Mazda 929 models from 1993 to 1995, Mazda MX-6 models from 1993 to 1997, and Mazda 626 models from 1993 to 1998. The vehicles were manufactured at either the Hiroshima plant of Mazda Motor Corporation in Japan or at the Auto Alliance International plant in the U.S.

The recall comes amid increased scrutiny of the auto industry and apparent delays by several auto manufacturers to issue recalls for known defects that pose a potential safety risk for consumers.

Last year, General Motors received a $35 million civil penalty for withholding information involving problems with ignition switches used in millions of vehicles, which may cause the vehicles to suddenly shut off if a heavy keychain is used or if the ignition is jarred, potentially preventing the airbags from deploying in an accident. The company has also agreed to pay millions in compensation to individuals who were injured or killed as a result of the ignition switch problems that went unaddressed for years.

The NHTSA indicates that Mazda is now planning to begin the recall in December 2015, and will instruct customers to schedule an appointment with their local dealer to have the ignition switch replaced for free. Mazda announced they will be changing the grease used at the terminal of the ignition-switch to fluorine-based grease which is less susceptible to carbonize and catch fire. Customers with questions regarding the recall may contact Mazda at 202-467-5092 and reference the recall number 8715J.

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