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(Yonhap Feature) S. Koreans feel utterly betrayed by BMW cars catching fire

2018/08/15 09:00

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By Choi Kyong-ae

SEOUL, Aug. 15 (Yonhap) -- Lee Gwang-deok never considered for a second that his BMW 520d sedan could burst into flames all of a sudden.

The 29-year-old car dealer stood helplessly by as his "dream car" caught fire and went up in smoke just minutes after it was parked on the side of a road following a mundane drive in Seongnam, a neighborhood in the outskirts of Seoul, on July 19.

"I bought the car only 20 months ago. BMW concluded the cause of the fire was unknown as the vehicle had completely melted down. I didn't get a dime in compensation from BMW, and they didn't give any clear explanation for the fire," Lee told Yonhap News Agency over the phone.

As his 520d had a record of being repaired in a car service center that was not authorized by the German carmaker, BMW said they could provide no compensation, citing warranty issues, he added.

These photos offered by Lee Gwang-deok, a BMW 520d owner, show the 29-year-old car dealer (L) and his destroyed vehicle after firefighters put out a fire that started in the engine room and spread to the whole body in July in Seongnam, just southeast of Seoul. (Yonhap) These photos offered by Lee Gwang-deok, a BMW 520d owner, show the 29-year-old car dealer (L) and his destroyed vehicle after firefighters put out a fire that started in the engine room and spread to the whole body in July in Seongnam, just southeast of Seoul. (Yonhap)

The incident has made him a vocal activist, and he was joined by 20 other owners of BMW cars in the country to demand that strong action be taken against the luxury carmaker over a series of fires that have raised alarm bells about vehicle safety.

The move to act comes on the heels of two separate joint lawsuits filed by BMW car owners against the company seeking compensations of five million won (US$4,400) in damages per owner. More suits and complaints are expected to be submitted in coming weeks.

Needless to say, the developments illustrate mounting anger and frustration felt by local consumers who opted to buy their Beemers over all other brands.

"Since many consumers are disappointed by the fire incidents as well as BMW's belated response to cope with the issue, it will likely have a grave impact on its brand image and sales in Korea," said Kim Hyun-jong, a 520d owner who also joined in the move to lodge complaint.

Citing the lack of service centers as the problem that most requires improvement, the 42-year-old salaried worker said BMW operates only 61 after-sales service centers across the country, and it falls far short of meeting repair and maintenance demands from hundreds of thousands of vehicles on the street today.

"It usually takes one to three months before the vehicles are returned after parts replacement and other services are completed. BMW badly needs to partner with local service centers to enhance customers' convenience," he claimed.

Last month, BMW said it will start recalling 106,317 vehicles next Monday after making emergency safety checks on all models with an exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) component that it blamed as the "root cause" of recent fires. A total of 39 fires in BMW cars have been reported this year through Wednesday, with no injuries or fatalities.

The carmaker said it will complete the inspections on the models subject to the planned recall by Tuesday. But 27,246 models remained uninspected as of Monday.

With additional fires making headlines, the government, after taking its share of flak for not taking decisive action, took steps to suspend the operation of all remaining models subject to the checkup from Wednesday. Under the provision, drivers will be barred from using their cars except for taking them to safety inspections. The driving ban is the first of its kind in Asia's fourth-biggest economy and clearly reflects the public mood over the problem.

The tough move could signal another setback for BMW, which was already dealing with declining vehicle sales in South Korea. The German carmaker has been the second-most popular import car brand here after Daimler AG's Mercedes-Benz, a local market watcher stressed.

In the January-July period, the number of newly registered foreign vehicles jumped 18 percent to 160,627 from 135,780 a year earlier, according to the Korea Automobile Importers and Distributors Association (KAIDA).

BMW, which also has the MINI and Rolls-Royce brands under its wing, sold a total of 43,806 units in the first seven months from 37,376 a year ago. But its on-month vehicle sales fell for four straight months through July due to the fire concerns, KAIDA data showed.

"German brands have dominated the domestic imported passenger car market for years. The fire hazard will allow BMW's archrival Mercedes-Benz to further cement its leading position in the short term and will allow non-German carmakers to expand their sales in the long term," said Kim Pil-soo, who teaches automotive engineering at Daelim University College.

On top of fines that can be currently slapped on carmakers for issuing delayed recalls, the Seoul government is considering adopting punitive damages against carmakers that attempt to hide and downplay even serious defects in their vehicles. If adopted, it will further enhance consumer protection, he said.

Punitive damages are imposed on a manufacturer in excess of actual compensatory damages in order to punish violators for a reckless or willful act.

"Even if the punitive damages system is introduced, I won't ever buy a BMW car as I have lost all confidence in the brand," Lee said, a clear sign that the carmaker will have an uphill climb to get people back into its showrooms even after the fire issue is resolved.

The photo at left, taken on Aug. 14, 2018, shows a notice about a temporary parking area for BMW vehicles at a building in central Seoul. The graphic image shows BMW's company logo and a square red plate indicating an operation suspension for vehicles that have yet to receive safety inspections. (Yonhap) The photo at left, taken on Aug. 14, 2018, shows a notice about a temporary parking area for BMW vehicles at a building in central Seoul. The graphic image shows BMW's company logo and a square red plate indicating an operation suspension for vehicles that have yet to receive safety inspections. (Yonhap)

kyongae.choi@yna.co.kr

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