Ford's delicate recall dance

July 24, 2012: 10:33 AM ET

No automaker wants to repeat Toyota's disastrous mistakes. With its most important launch in years coming up, Ford certainly can't afford to.

By Doron Levin, contributor

2013_ford_escapeFORTUNE -- The 2013 Escape sport-utility vehicle, a rookie in Ford Motor Co.'s product lineup, stumbled in the starting blocks last week as the automaker ordered owners of the model to park their new cars immediately to avert the danger of a fire.

The design flaw leading to the fire danger affected an unknown number of vehicles in a group of 11,500 Escapes that were built at Ford's Louisville, Kentucky manufacturing plant. Only Escapes equipped with a 1.6-liter Ecoboost engines were affected.

It wasn't the first glitch. The new model, a comprehensive redesign of the Escape SUV based on a Mazda platform introduced in 2000, was a few weeks earlier recalled after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Ford opened an investigation into reports by drivers that their right foot might improperly move from accelerator to brake due to faulty design of a panel in the center console. Ford is replacing the panel.

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Though Ford has no reports of injuries or deaths the two safety recalls mar its new-model launch at a time when automakers are contending against each other and weak consumer demand, which hasn't yet recovered to the level prior to the 2008 economic collapse.

But Ford it taking pains to be accommodating to requests for information as well as providing support such as loaner cars so the automaker and dealers may avoid a debacle such as the one that engulfed Toyota Motor Corp. (TM) in 2010-2011. Toyota admitted that its investigation into spectacular claims of unintended acceleration failed to provide adequate and timely information to media, regulators and the public.

"We are really trying to do what's right on behalf of the consumer," said Marcey Zweibel, a Ford (F) spokesperson. "The steps we have taken aren't routine. Normally we send a letter and tell people to bring the vehicle in" for service or replacement of defective parts.

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Michelle Krebs, a senior analyst for Edmunds.com, said "these Escape problems will die down for Ford. But it has to get the impending launch of its new Fusion midsize family sedan right. That's such a competitive segment, no one can afford to have any slip-ups."

The first fire took place at Ford's assembly plant on July 4. Two more blazes were detected before the automaker concluded the three were related and ordered the return of the affected vehicles on July 19.

As Ford explained, the root of problem that caused three fires was a "scored" or scratched fuel line manufactured by a Ford supplier whose identity wasn't disclosed. The scored line that attached to the engine can split, thereby causing a fuel leak and combustion. Two of the three fires occurred when Ford employees were driving the car prior to their delivery to customers. One unidentified customer was driving an Escape that caught fire. Ford said no one was injured.

Zweibel said the replacement of the fuel line takes less than an hour and all recalled vehicles will be repaired "within a few weeks."

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The new Escape, based on the same architecture as the new Ford Focus, starts at $22,500 and competes against the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Mazda CX-5 and Kia Sportage. The styling borrows cues for the Ford Kuga sold in Europe.

Ford clearly is counting on openness and transparency to overcome whatever negatives the technical glitches and shocking threat of fire have caused its new SUV.

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