After Complaints, Federal Agency Opens Investigation on Ford Windstars

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has opened an investigation into broken rear axles on 1999–2003 Ford Windstars.

The agency says it has 234 complaints, including two reports of accidents, although no injuries. The agency estimates that Ford sold 900,000 of the minivans.

“Fifty-six complaints indicate that the axle failure occurred at speeds of 40 miles per hour or greater,” according to a safety agency document, which also notes that the “fracture of a rear suspension axle could result in loss of vehicle control.”

Ford has said that the axle issue is not a safety problem. Last week a Ford spokesman, Said Deep, said, “the operator retains control of the vehicle at all times” and “the few reports alleging loss of control are inconsistent with how Ford would expect these front-wheel-drive vehicles to respond.”

He also noted that most of the failures occurred after 100,000 miles, well beyond the factory warranty.

Mr. Deep said on Friday after the investigation was announced, “We are aware of it and will cooperate fully with N.H.T.S.A., as we always do.”

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration document, the problem seems to be worse in states that use a lot of road salt. “The rear axle beam in the subject vehicles is an inverted ‘U’ channel design, which appears to provide a collection point for road salt slurry, resulting in corrosion that progressively weakens the part until it fractures,” the document states.

The investigation is called a Preliminary Evaluation. If investigators decide there could be a serious problem, the investigation would be upgraded into an Engineering Analysis, a big step closer to a recall. However, the agency could also conclude there is not a safety problem and simply close the Preliminary Evaluation without additional action.

John Arout of Staten Island, N.Y., had the rear axle on his 2001 Windstar break earlier this year. He said he became curious about the failure and searched the agency’s Web site looking for consumer complaints. He found so many he couldn’t understand why the agency had never investigated.

Asked about that last week, a spokeswoman for the safety agency said it was aware of the complaints and had been monitoring them.

Mr. Arout said Friday morning that he was pleased to hear an investigation was under way. “Somebody out there is waking up,” he said.