We’d like to imagine that vehicles spontaneously combusting is something that only happens in movies — but unfortunately for folks driving the 2011 Hyundai Sonata, the risk of sudden engine fire is all too real. CarComplaints.com contains over a dozen reports from angry drivers who experienced this defect.
In fact, Hyundai has a long history of engine problems and has had to recall hundreds of thousands of vehicles throughout the past few years. Here’s what you need to know about this dangerous problem.
Why does the 2011 Hyundai Sonata catch fire?
The issue appears to be linked to the Theta II engines found in the Hyundai Sonata, Car and Driver reports. These particular engines have crankpins and crankshafts with a dangerous defect — they can leave metal shavings in the crankshaft oil passages. As these shavings build up, the engine eventually seizes. The result? Flickering display lights, brake and steering malfunctions, and sudden engine fires.
As you might imagine, this is a severe defect that can completely destroy the vehicle and put the driver and passengers at risk. One Sonata driver told Car Complaints that their vehicle was engulfed in flames in under two minutes. Another said, “My brakes went out, then smoke from [the] hood, then fire. The car stopped after many tries of shifting and emergency brake, I jumped out and ran.”
Almost every Sonata driver on CarComplaints.com describes their vehicle being ruined, with fires that seemed to appear out of nowhere and grow extremely quickly.
Early Hyundai Sonata recalls
In 2015, Hyundai recalled approximately 470,000 Sonatas after reports of engine failures and fires. At the time, the automaker explained that the 2011 Hyundai Sonata was the first to use Theta II engines from the Alabama factory, which had recently changed the procedure it utilized to remove metal debris from the crankshaft.
However, Hyundai insisted that the problem wasn’t a safety issue because “Sonata owners always had ample warnings that something was wrong with the cars.” It wasn’t until the NHTSA stepped in and expressed concern that the vehicles might stall at high speeds that Hyundai finally issued an official recall.
The automaker faced further legal issues in 2017, according to Car and Driver. At that time, Hyundai settled a class-action lawsuit filed by owners of 2011-2014 Sonatas who had been forced to pay thousands of dollars in repairs after their engines seized.
In both 2015 and 2017, Hyundai partially or fully replaced the engines of affected Sonata vehicles. As a preventative measure, the automaker also installed a Knock Sensor Detection System that could sound an alarm if the engine was about to fail — although it couldn’t do anything to actually prevent the problem.
Recent investigations and lawsuits
In April 2019, the NHTSA opened an investigation into both Hyundai and Kia after receiving over 3,000 reports of spontaneous engine fires. The investigation examined three million vehicles, including the 2010-2015 Kia Soul and the 2011-2014 Hyundai Sonata.
More recently, a judge granted preliminary approval to a Hyundai and Kia engine settlement in May 2020. The current class-action lawsuit involves Hyundai and Kia vehicles that contain the Theta II gasoline direct injection engines.
The plaintiffs are alleging that both automakers ignored and concealed engine defects and that dealerships refused to respond to complaints. Both Hyundai and Kia fully deny liability and claim that there are absolutely no defects in the engines.
Even so, all parties agreed to a settlement in October 2019, and with the judge’s recent approval, Sonata drivers are one step closer to being compensated for the damages they suffered from their vehicles spontaneously bursting into flame.