BMW Recalls Some Turbo-Charged Cars Following ABC News Investigation

Some turbo-charged cars may have defective fuel pumps, company says.

October 25, 2010, 10:49 PM

Oct. 26, 2010 — -- BMW has issued a voluntary recall of some 130,000 vehicles that are equipped with twin-turbo engines just hours after ABC News aired a report on its investigation into potential problems concerning the fuel pumps in such vehicles.

The German car manufacturer said the recall involves approximately 130,000 vehicles from some 2007 models to 2010 models which "may experience a failure of the high-pressure fuel pump." Failure of the fuel pump could result in "reduced engine performance," the carmaker said.

BMW said about 40,000 of the vehicles are expected to require a new, high-pressure fuel pump.

Affected models include the 2007 to 2010 335i series, the 2008 to 2010 135i, 535i and X6 xDrive35i Sports Activity Coupes and the 2009 to 2010 Z4 Roadster sDrive35i.

In a separate action, BMW announced that it is recalling more than 20,000 2008 X5 Sports Activity Vehicles that use low-pressure fuel pumps.

"In this case, should the fuel pump experience a failure, the engine will stop running and the driver will lose power assist for the steering and brakes although both the steering and the brakes remain operational," BMW said of the 2008 X5 in a statement.

Owners of BMW vehicles affected by the recall will be notified by letter which will request the scheduling of a service appointment to have the fuel pump update performed, the company said.

CLICK HERE to download BMW's statement announcing the recall.

In a driveway in central New Jersey sits a 300-horsepower BMW, a $40,000 turbocharged dynamo that is rarely driven because its owners say it is unsafe.

The car has a defective high-pressure fuel pump that can cause it to shake, vibrate and unexpectedly slow down while driving, BMW driver Michael Noone told ABC News.

"We really don't have confidence in the car anymore," said Noone, who leased it in 2008 as a graduation gift for his 25-year-old daughter Jennifer.

BMW introduced its new line of turbo vehicles four years ago to much fanfare. Designed for the well-heeled driving enthusiast, the company said, their sleek convertibles and sedans are sporty and luxurious. They are advertised as the "ultimate driving machine."

"I loved the color, I loved the model, I thought it was really hip and edgy," Jennifer Noone said.

Shortly after driving home her dream car, Jennifer Noone said she began experiencing problems that frightened her.

"It was really jittery and shaking and it was scary, shaking so bad and hesitating and all the lights were going on in the car. So I pulled over and I got really nervous on the side of the road. So I called my dad to pick me up because I was afraid to drive it. I thought it was going to blow up or something," she said.

When her father drove the car, he, too, said he found a troubling issue.

"And then I tried to accelerate one time to go by another car and it didn't have the power. It hesitated very badly. So I can only feel that if this was on the highway, this could be a very deadly situation."

A month-long investigation by ABC News has found that Noone's experience is far from unique. BMW and federal safety regulators have received hundreds of similar complaints from owners of 2007 to 2009 BMWs with the powerful N54 twin-turbocharged engine, but little was done to alert drivers. Among the models that could be affected are the twin-turbocharged models of the 135, 335 and 535 series as well as certain Z-4 Roadsters and X-6 SUVs.

Allison Mangot, a former BMW owner, described her experience: "The car started shaking, back-firing. We had no idea what was going on. It's very, very, very scary."

BMW attributes the problem to the high-pressure pump that feeds fuel to the motor. When it fails or falters, the car can suddenly go to a reduced power or what the company calls "limp safety mode."

"When that high-pressure pump on the engine fails, the vehicle goes into what we call a safe mode, which means that you have power steering, power brakes but you don't have as much power and that can be startling for some people," Tom Baloga, BMW of North America's chief engineer, told ABC News.

When pressed about how safe this so-called "limp" or "safe mode" really is -- given the frightening experiences described by some drivers -- Baloga said "it's unfortunate that the failure of the pump caused that feelings and we certainly can sympathize with that. People have different expectations."

Safety Advocate: BMW 'Gambling' with Drivers' Lives

And when government regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration investigated fuel pump-related complaints in 2008, BMW insisted the conditions "do not pose any risk to motor vehicle safety," adding that "despite reduced engine power, we believe that safe vehicle operation is possible."

The NHTSA investigation was closed with a determination that "further investigation of this matter would not be an efficient allocation of agency resources." But closing the investigation "does not constitute a finding by NHTSA that a safety-related defect does not exist," regulators wrote in their report.

Auto safety advocate Clarence Ditlow says he thinks BMW is taking a big gamble.

"This is not a question of whether the pump is defective or not -- it is defective. It's just a question of who pays for it. BMW or the customer, and with the customer, they may pay for it with their life if it fails in a particularly dangerous situation on the highway," he said. "And what they are doing is they're gambling with you, that you won't have an accident when that fuel pump fails, that's not a gamble that you voluntarily agreed to take. That's something that BMW is doing with your vehicle."

But BMW hasn't escaped legal challenge. Hundreds of claims have been brought against the company for fuel pump malfunctions, said lawyers across the country, including a recently filed California class action suit by Kenshaw, Cutter & Ratinoff, LLP.

Most of these legal actions have led to settlements on the condition that BMW drivers sign a confidentiality agreement, plaintiffs' lawyers told ABC News.

"If somebody is in an accident and they're hurt and BMW pays them enough, they sign the gag clause, and we don't hear about it," lemon law attorney Robert Silverman from Kimmel & Silverman, P.C. told ABC News.

For years, BMW did not have a fix and did not clearly warn their customers of the defect, claimed Silverman. "They don't want this story to come out. They can't fix the car for cost reasons or they haven't configured a good fuel pump," he said. "They're playing Russian roulette with the lives and safety of their customers, as well as people in the car and other drivers."

Since the government closed its investigation two years ago, the complaints to the NHTSA have kept coming, including reports of "dangerous and unpredictable" circumstances, and "sudden" and "random" power loss.

There have been reports of cars stalling, allegedly without warning. One BMW owner wrote in a complaint to the NHTSA: "Why hasn't this problem been addressed? Does someone need to die?"

In order to find out for ourselves what BMW has been telling its customers, ABC News' producers shopped for certified pre-owned cars at two dealerships with hidden cameras.

When they were pressed about any mechanical issues with the cars, salesmen readily acknowledged there were problems with some of the fuel pumps on some models.

"There was, like, an informal recall on them," one salesman said.

But the dealers told our producers that it was not a safety concern.

"There's no guarantees in the world. But there's no known safety problems with the car," a salesman said. "I mean, you know, Toyota went through a big spell last year and Lexus with their transmissions, acceleration and stuff. I mean, everything -- you got a blitz now and then. It's got to be adjusted and corrected."

When a producer asked if the problem could cause an accident, the salesman responded: "It wouldn't."

"If it was that big of an issue it would've been an actual recall," another said.

This problem has not caused any injuries or deaths, according to BMW, but the company did acknowledge that the fuel pump can fail with little or no warning.

"You can still drive," Baloga, said. "It is a surprise. It's something you're not expecting but you don't have the brakes applied suddenly, you're not slowing down immediately, you're not doing something with a deceleration that would cause the person behind you to, to immediately run into you."

Since it discovered the problem, BMW sent out a series of alerts to its dealers about the pump failures and notified customers that it was extending the fuel pump warranty.

"I kept bringing the car in," Mangot said. "I got out of the dealership, didn't even make it down the street. Buh, buh, buh. The shaking, the rocking. Turned around, brought it right back in."

"I asked mine if I could take mine on a trip to California," Len Kutzko, another BMW owner, told ABC News. "And he said…Put it on a flatbed, that's the way you can take it."

As complaints mounted, BMW sent a letter to owners of the vehicles that may be affected by the fuel pump problem, alerting them that the fuel pump could cause unspecified "reduced engine performance." The letter advised the owners that the warranty on the fuel pump was being extended to 10 years and that they should "feel free" to contact their dealer if they encountered a problem.

BMW admitted to ABC News that it wasn't until March of this year, four years after these cars were introduced, that it finally found a fix: a properly working fuel pump. "We were making changes but we also had to see and make sure that they were actually reliable in the field," said Baloga.

Still, even after March, BMW did not tell customers to come in and replace the potentially defective fuel pumps. Instead, they allowed drivers to get a new part if and only after the old one failed.

Asked why, Baloga said: "Well, we don't want to alarm people to say, 'I have to drop everything and postpone my vacation, I have to bring the car in when it's inconvenient to me.'"

And when pressed he added: "Well, we did take action to notify people. We probably can be better in the future with our communication and we'll take a look at that."

BMW sent a letter to owners of vehicles that may be affected by the fuel pump problem, alerting them that the fuel pump could cause performance issues.

ABC News Investigation Prompts Major Action

Finally, one week after ABC News first contacted the company, the German automaker told ABC News that they would soon announce a "major action" to address the fuel pump issue.

"We understand that people are feeling uncomfortable with the situation and people want to know more, so we're taking action as quickly as possible," Baloga said.

He conceded that questions from ABC News "caused us to decide to take action sooner, rather than later."

Still, it may take longer to restore the faith of their once-loyal customers. "There is nothing that could get me into that car, ever, ever," said Mangot.

"If something was to happen to my daughter that would change my life forever," Noone said. "And I don't want to see something happen to my daughter or someone else's daughter in an unsafe car."

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