Third time unlucky for Ford Kuga in 2017: What’s really going on this time?

<i>Image: Quickpic</i>
<i>Image: Quickpic</i>

UPDATE: Ford South Africa issued a recall late in August 2017, the third recall of the Kuga this year. 

Cape Town - In a world of instant gratification and update downloads which solve all our niggles, failing hardware remains the reality check you hope never to endure. Just ask Ford. 

America’s most successful car brand is having a great 2017 – a Le Mans win, sterling profits, rampant Ranger sales – but in South Africa its operations remain haunted by Kuga.

The SUV which effectively ended the tenure of CEO Jeff Nemeth has enraged consumer protection activists and left most automotive media at a lost for explanations. 

Fundamentally Kuga is an excelling mid-sized SUV; sophisticated drivetrain, clever ergonomics, intuitive SYNC infotainment system. Looks good too. But beyond all these merits, the design team has missed a raft of issues which can cause Kuga to catch fire. And catching fire, as any motorsport competitor will assure you – is the worst-case scenario for a driver or car occupants. 

When will the upgraded Kuga arrive in SA? Curiously, it's already at local dealers yet its official launch will take place on September 18.

Disappointingly, for the third time in 2017, Ford issued a recall for its Kuga in August – to address an issue which sources to fire risk, again. Not since the Ford Explorer/Firestone tyre debacle of the early 1990s, has Ford suffered such disastrous legacy issues with a product.

More than 7000 affected in 3rd recall for SA

This third recall, issued late in August 2017, concerns Kuga’s seatbelt-tensioner, located near the driver’s right (and front passenger’s left) shoulder, mounted on the inside of the B-pillar. The problem only affects cars built in Spain, at Ford Valencia facility, in the period of July 2012 to June 2014.

What's the problem?

Seatbelt-tensioners are invaluable devices, functioning in an emergency by an igniter, which adds the required amount to tension to the belt, keeping occupants restrained to their seats, instead of risking forward projection and suffering the inevitable whiplash effect. 

Pyrotechnic powered safety devices are commonplace. Your car’s airbags deploy in milliseconds due to the a dramatic chemical reaction (explosion). If the automotive industry’s been using controlled explosive reactions to power emergency safety features for nearly three decades, why has Kuga’s gone wrong?

Insulation to blame?

According to Ford the issue is insulation. Somehow there’s too much insulation in the B-Pillar and creating the combustion risk when those seatbelt-tensioners are spurred into action by pyrotechnics, in an emergency. Ford says that by removing some of the insulation material, the issue is solved. 

This latest Kuga recall issue raises a very disquieting question. Either the fundamental product engineering of Kuga was incomplete or the factory production, failingly inconsistent. The presence of insulation in the B-pillar is not a new technology, it’s a method of damping high frequency vibration through the monocoque, thereby reducing noise. 

A calmer cabin environment is desirable and much meticulous engineering is practiced achieving this. The idea of removing insulation is troubling, because in that area around of the seatbelt-tensioner, an occupant would be very susceptible to any increase in decibels. Just think how disturbing a perished window or door seal is when driving at speed. 

If engineers did not model a scenario where insulation combustion was tested, that’s an enormous oversight – and somehow, I can’t imagine they didn’t. The only other explanation would be traced to the factory and build quality of those Kugas in question. If the Valencia facility miscalculated insulation volumes, and overfilled the B-pillar of those 2012-2014 cars due to supply chain or calibration issues, it’s an industrial engineering failure. 

Ford says there have been no B-pillar tensioner fires in South Africa yet but the recall is precautionary and the repair should only take an hour to be made at a local dealership.

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