Are BMWs bursting into flames?

May 11, 2017

People who believe in spontaneous human combustion are used to getting weird looks when they explain their opinions to skeptics. Some BMW owners know just how they feel: a number of them claim that their cars have burst into flames in much the same way, for no apparent reason.

The difference between the two is that cars can occasionally catch fire for no immediately obvious cause. Faulty wiring, faulty maintenance work, fuel leaks, rodents, or any number of other issues can lead to a vehicle fire. 

BMW says that it has investigated reports of cars suddenly going up in flames--while parked, no less--and to date, it's found no persistent defect that might be causing the problem.

(Interestingly, BMW only revealed that fact after first stating that it hadn't heard of the phenomenon. It's also claimed ignorance to some owners who've filed complaints with the company--at least according to a lawyer who's representing those owners in court.)

To date, BMW hasn't even identified a pattern of behavior that could connect the fires. Some have occurred within minutes of the engine being turned off, while in at least one case, the vehicle had been parked for several days. 

And BMW isn't the only party that's dumbfounded by the issue. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration hasn't found a "smoking gun" either, but it encourages anyone who experiences unusual auto-related behavior--including but not limited to spontaneous combustion--to report it via the agency's website

Officials in other countries are a bit more alarmed. South Korea, for example, is conducting an extensive investigation into the matter following some high-profile reports of BMW fires. Regulators initially thought that the fires were linked to a documented problem in some BMW diesel lines. However, that wouldn't explain why some non-diesels have caught fire, too.

Although there's no such probe ongoing in the U.S., owners indicate that the company has offered discounts on replacement vehicles, at least in some instances. The company has also issued cash settlements, provided owners are willing to sign non-disclosure agreements. 

Our take

As our grandparents used to say, where there's smoke, there's usually fire. In this case, the old saying might be true. 

That's not to say that BMW is trying to cover up a major probably with its vehicles--though as we've learned from General Motors, Takata, and Volkswagen debacles, anything's possible. However, there are enough reports of fires to make us raise an eyebrow or two.

Rest assured, if it turns out that something's wrong with BMW vehicles, we'll be among the first to tell you about it.

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