Bay Area man survives car fire, Hyundai and Kia now under investigation

SUNNYVALE, Calif. (KGO) -- Federal regulators have launched an investigation into thousands of car fires involving Hyundai and Kia models which erupted into flames. Now for the first time, we're hearing from a Bay Area resident who counts himself among the motorists whose car suddenly caught fire.

John Thorne looks at photos on his phone of the fire that erupted in his 2011 Hyundai Sonata.

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The Sunnyvale man is one of 3,100 Hyundai and Kia owners who have filed complaints since 2010 after their cars caught fire in non-crash incidents.

Video from the Center for Auto Safety shows a 2011 Kia Optima which its owner says burst into flames while being driven near Portland, Oregon last year.

Both Hyundai and Kia are owned by the Hyundai Motor group.

John vividly remembers what happened to him in 2017. He recalls driving north on I-5 near Bakersfield. His car began to knock. His engine and oil lights went on and his RPM dropped to zero.

On sheer momentum, he managed to pull to the side of the road. There, a total stranger came to his rescue.

"He's running towards me. Waving his arms. 'Get out of the car, get out of the car,"' said John.

John remembers flames shooting out from this engine to above the roof of his car. The good samaritan put out the fire with jugs of Gatorade.

"No fear. Just run. He knew exactly what he wanted to do. Just run back to his car. Grab an arm full of Gatorade," John said.

The fire destroyed John's engine but left his car in one piece.

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Hyundai tells 7 On Your Side it could not determine the cause of the fire, but compensated Thorne for the expenses and inconvenience out of goodwill.

"It was just crazy. One minute I had a car. The next I didn't have a car and I thought, I'm screwed," John said.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says it received reports of 103 injuries and one death in non-crash car fires involving the 2011 to 2014 Kia Optima and Sorento, the 2010 to 2015 Kia Soul and the 2011 to 2014 Hyundai Sonata and Santa Fe.

It agreed to launch a full investigation following a petition from the Center for Auto Safety in Washington, D.C.

Jason Levine is the Center's executive director.

"There's no doubt it's coming from the engine. The only question is what is causing it to come from the engine," Levine said.

Hyundai says its fully cooperating with the investigation and points to its recall of more than one million 2011-2014 Sonatas and 2013-2014 Santa Fe Sports for "engine failure, an in limited cases an engine fire."

Kia called "safety of our customers is one of our highest priorities...and we will continue to work with the agency in a fully transparent manner."

In 2017 it recalled the 2011-2014 Optima, 2011-2013 Sportage, 2012-2014 Sorento and is currently installing a knock sensor detection upgrade on 1.6 million vehicles.

"Our problem with that is the sensor doesn't stop the vehicle from catching on fire. All it does is it throws the vehicle in a limp home mode which means you can't go above 20 MPH and lets you go to the side of the road," Levine said.

Hyundai disputes that claim and says its knock sensor would detect early engine issues caused by excessive bearing wear and actually allow a vehicle to go up to 65 mph.

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If you had a non-crash fire incident with the vehicles mentioned in this report, let us know about it.

Take a look at more stories and videos by Michael Finney and 7 On Your Side.

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