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Angry South Korean BMW owners appeal to Merkel over car fires

German automaker under pressure as complaint over safety filed with police

Kim Hyo-joon, chairman of BMW Korea, apologizes during a news conference in Seoul on Aug. 6.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- BMW, long the second best-selling foreign auto brand in South Korea, is now being criticized by a large swath of the public.

About 40 of the German automaker's cars have caught fire on South Korean roads this year, raising fears among drivers.

The company has managed to further inflame the situation by blaming the fires on South Korean drivers and the country's roads.

South Koreans, on the other hand, wonder if the German luxury brand is selling vehicles in the country that do not match BMW's quality in Europe and other regions.

The state-run transport safety agency is investigating the company and plans to test whether the 520d model being sold in South Korea has the same exhaust gas recirculation module that is on the car in Europe. The company itself said the fire hazard could have something to do with the EGR.

EGRs cut nitrogen oxide emissions and lower combustion temperature.

The Korea Transportation Safety Authority also plans to investigate whether the 120d's air conditioner might be causing the fires.

"We are open to all possibilities as to the causes of the incidents, including that the model's EGR module [might be] different from that used in Europe," said Lee Sang-yeon, a spokesperson for the KTSA. "We plan to complete the investigation by December."

BMW owners are unsatisfied with the company and safety agency. They plan to ask the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board to investigate the matter. They have already sent letters to President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, asking the leaders to look into the fires.

They have also filed a complaint with the police, who raided the company's Seoul headquarters on Thursday.

BMW says it uses the same EGR system all over the world and that the module's software is uniform in every country except the U.S. It also says that its EGR failure rate in South Korea is 0.1% of the total number of BMW diesels on the road, and that this is lower than the worldwide rate of 0.12%.

BMW said coolant leaking from the EGRs is a main factor behind the fires. The company also said that since it uses the same EGR technology in Europe, it is also taking action there.

The BMW executive who appeared to indicate that South Korean drivers have bad habits and that the country's roads are subpar stoked criticism from owners and the public. In an interview with China's Xinhua News Agency, BMW representative Jochen Frey is quoted as identifying "local traffic conditions" and Koreans' "driving style" as two of many reasons for BMWs bursting into flames in the country. The company later said Frey was mistranslated.

Earlier in August, the transport ministry placed a driving ban on over 20,000 BMWs. At first, the ministry had asked owners to refrain from driving certain models while the investigation is underway. But after more incidents occurred, the ministry imposed its first-ever driving ban.

The order impacted 27,246 cars that had yet to receive safety checks, part of a recall of 106,317 vehicles across 42 models. The ban takes effect once car owners receive a notice from the ministry.

South Korea is a major destination for foreign-made autos. Over 2 million are registered in the country, three times that of Japan when adjusted for population.

Public opinion of BMW has nose-dived, and the automaker will likely fall behind rivals like Mercedes-Benz maker Daimler in South Korea.

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