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Washington — The top-ranking Democrat on the U.S. Senate committee that oversees the auto industry is calling for federal regulators to investigate complaints about Kia and Hyundai vehicles catching fire.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, a member of  the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said Wednesday in a letter to Heidi King, deputy administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, that more than 120 complaints have been filed with the agency involving non-collision related fires in Kias and Hyundais.

"Spontaneous fires are serious safety hazards and should not be taken lightly," Nelson wrote. "We have to find out what is causing these fires and what can be done to prevent them. Owners need to know if their vehicles are safe. As a result, NHTSA must quickly identify and adequately address any serious safety issues." 

“NHTSA takes all potential safety defects seriously," the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said. "The agency is reviewing the issue and will take appropriate action to protect the American public. NHTSA encourages consumers to report potential safety concerns to NHTSA.gov or by calling the NHTSA Safety Hotline at (888) 327-4236."

Hyundai, which is  a minority owner of Kia, said it is reviewing a petition filed by the Center for Auto Safety in regards to 2011-2014 Sonata and Santa Fe Sport vehicles.

"Hyundai actively evaluates potential safety concerns with all of its vehicles and acts swiftly to recall vehicles with safety related defects," Hyundai Motor America said in a statement. "Should we, in close coordination with NHTSA, find that additional remedies in the U.S. are warranted for these vehicles, we will take immediate action to ensure the safety of our customers."

A driver of a 2014 Kia Optima in Santa Rose Beach, Florida, complained to NHTSA about the vehicle catching fire on an interstate highway. 

"I was driving down the interstate as I heard a loud pop so pulled over on the side of the road thinking it was my tires," wrote the driver, who was not identified by NHTSA. "As I looked at all the tires, I didn't see anything so I got back in. Soon as I got back in the vehicle I smelled something so I turned the car off and got out. The minute I got out of the car it engulfed in flames. The fire report showed it was due to an electrical issue, and the entire car burnt up." 

Another driver of a 2013 Kia Optima complained in May about the vehicle stalling "without warning and smoke and flames emerged from under the hood." The Optima driver said firefighters extinguished the fire.

Nelson questioned whether NHTSA has considered initiating a formal safety defect investigation into the fires and asked whether the agency has been in contact with Kia and Hyundai. He asked the agency to provide all communications about the fires by July 3. 

klaing@detroitnews.com

(202) 662-8735

Twitter: @Keith_Laing

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