What is the price of a rep­u­ta­tion?

Long-de­layed Kuga fires re­call cam­paign was badly han­dled

The Star Early Edition - - OPINION - DE­NIS DROPPA

Mo­tor­ing Edi­tor

FORD South­ern Africa wouldn’t say how much its much-pub­li­cised Kuga re­call cam­paign is cost­ing, but the rep­u­ta­tional dam­age done to the brand is even harder to quan­tify.

By tak­ing so long to re­act to a life-threat­en­ing fac­tory fault in its cars and only af­ter ex­ten­sive prompt­ing by the me­dia, loom­ing le­gal ac­tion by af­fected own­ers and pres­sure from the Na­tional Con­sumer Com­mis­sion, did the com­pany this week fi­nally in­sti­tute what it iron­i­cally calls a “vol­un­tary” re­call cam­paign on 4 556 Kuga 1.6 Eco­boost mod­els built be­tween 2012 and 2014. Lo­cal in­sur­ance com­pa­nies had re­port­edly in­formed Ford about the fires more than a year ago, and al­ready back in 2013 the Ford Es­cape, the sis­ter model to the Kuga, was af­fected by fires in the US.

Ford’s dilly-dal­ly­ing is not the way to in­stil con­fi­dence in a brand. When two or three Ku­gas went up in flames it should have elicited worry within the com­pany. When it was fol­lowed by a few more, the alarm bells should have started ring­ing and the words “re­call cam­paign” should have re­sounded down Ford’s cor­ri­dors a lot ear­lier.

Only now, af­ter 39 burnt-out cars (pos­si­bly more) and ex­ten­sive pub­lic ou­trage, did the com­pany launch an in­ves­ti­ga­tion and as­cer­tain that the fires were due to over­heat­ing which led to crack­ing in the cylin­der head and leak­ing oil ig­nit­ing on the hot en­gine.

The safety re­call ini­tially in­volves re­plac­ing af­fected cool­ing sys­tem com­po­nents, up­dat­ing soft­ware, and con­duct­ing an oil leak check on the cylin­der head. Stage two will make the cool­ing sys­tem even more ro­bust and may in­volve fur­ther changes to parts and warn­ing sys­tems.

But all this should have been done many months ago.

Based on the pub­lic re­sponse, it’s clear this isn’t a rep­u­ta­tion prob­lem limited to one par­tic­u­lar Ford Kuga 1.6-litre model. It’s the whole brand in the fir­ing line and it will be in­ter­est­ing to see how the blue oval’s sales fig­ures are af­fected over the com­ing months.

The com­pany also de­flected re­spon­si­bil­ity for the De­cem­ber 2015 death of Kuga driver Re­shall Jimmy af­ter his car burst into flames, say­ing this was un­re­lated to the re­call cam­paign as the fire hadn’t started in the en­gine bay. As if it mat­ters where the ex­act fault was. The car mal­func­tioned, some­one died and Ford dis­played in­sen­si­tiv­ity to Jimmy’s fam­ily by not ac­knowl­edg­ing blame.

Most of the fam­i­lies whose Ford Kuga SUVs burst into flames will be fil­ing a class-ac­tion law­suit against Ford.

En­gine fires are se­ri­ous and in­di­cate short­cuts in the de­vel­op­ment and pro­duc­tion of a car. How­ever peo­ple un­der­stand that me­chan­i­cal things can go wrong and the more im­por­tant part is how the man­u­fac­turer re­acts to the cri­sis. Ford gets a very low score for this one.

One would have more re­spect for the car­maker if it had owned up right from the start and said: “We messed up, we’re sorry and we’ll fix it.”

In­stead the com­pany comes across as an un­feel­ing cor­po­rate gi­ant forced into mak­ing a grudg­ing re­call and half-hearted apol­ogy.

Per­haps the com­pany can take heed of the words of its founder Henry Ford who said: “The only real mis­take is the one from which we learn noth­ing.”

A Ford Kuga in flames at the road­side.

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