One of Vauxhall's top-selling cars, The Insignia, was launched in 2008 and crowned European Car of the Year just one year later.
However, if you're unlucky, the car could lose power while you are steering, flammable fluid could leak into your engine and, according to some experts, your car could even burst into flames. Chris Hollins reports...
Martin Webb bought his new Vauxhall Insignia in April 2010. By May 2011, the £21,000 vehicle's engine had caught fire when Martin was driving to Dorset for a weekend away. He was only notified when a car pulled alongside him and told him that there were flames coming out the back of the car. Martin and his wife got out of the car just as the fire had taken hold. He explains: "There were two or maybe even three large bangs which could have been the tyres because a lot of the car was actually melted to the pavement. If the fire brigade had been two more minutes, there would have been nothing left."
Although Martin and his wife were badly shaken, neither were hurt. The car, on the other hand, was a write-off. So what was it that caused Martin's Insignia to burst into flames so dramatically? He says the reason given by Vauxhall over the phone was that the pipe on the power steering had come off and the fluid had dropped onto the diesel particulate filter and ignited, as the diesel particulate filter gets very hot.
Vauxhall later commissioned a forensic report. It didn't find the exact cause of the fire, but said that it was fluid based. It ruled out fuel or oil, and it also appeared to support the theory that power assisted steering fluid had escaped, causing the blaze. The report identified staining on the heat shield of the diesel particulate filter - the device that removes soot from the exhaust.
Car expert, John Dabek explains that power steering fluid is an hydraulic oil, and like any oil it is combustible: "Power steering fluid is delivered under pressure through the pipework that this is located quite close to the exhaust system. If this was to fail, fluid could find its way into the exhaust system. Depending on how hot that part of the exhaust system gets, you run a risk of this vehicle catching fire."
As Martin's car was a diesel, it means that if there was any leakage of hydraulic oil, pressurised from this pipe then it could find its way on to the exhaust system which contains the diesel particulate filter - which according to John Dabek is arguably the hottest part of the exhaust system, which means the effects of that could be quite serious indeed.
Vauxhall now say their own investigations have ruled out this possibility, and that no fault was found with the high pressure hose or fittings, but they also say the cause of the fire remains unknown.
Vauxhall have also identified a fault in some other Insignia models, which according to some experts, could result in fire.
And how do we know that? We got our hands on what Vauxhall refers to as a 'Technical Service Bulletin'. It's a document that Vauxhall distributes internally to mechanics when something has gone wrong with one of their vehicles and a part needs replacing. The report that we have, which is dated October 2011, refers to the pipe that carries the power steering fluid and it's pretty clear: the power steering pressure pipe might crack/leak. The remedy? Replace the Power Steering Pressure Pipe and Clip. The cause? Insufficient design.
So what could be the consequences of failing to remedy this 'insufficient design'? According to John Dabek, there's a potential situation where you can have a failure of a power steering pipe under pressure, meaning that drivers could lose power assistance to their steering, which is could be quite serious. There is also the potential for power assisted steering fluid to spray onto the hot part of the exhaust, the diesel particulate filter, that can cause smoke - and in the worst case, could cause a fire.
However, Vauxhall say that if power steering fluid does escape from a pipe, it will leak out slowly, rather than be sprayed across the engine. But how reassuring is that?
Automotive engineer, Mark Brown, explains: "This fluid is highly flammable, and its presence on the engine in any form is dangerous. A leak once started can, and usually does, worsen of its own volition owing to the nature of the reason the leak starts in the first place - so even a slow leak presents a serious fire hazard."
Vauxhall says the fault affects 6,900 vehicles, all manufactured in Germany between 2009 and 2010, and they told us it cannot state categorically that no fluid would, under any circumstances, come into contact with a part of the engine where a fire could potentially result. But: it's recalled none of the affected vehicles. Instead, the fault is being fixed only when owners put them in for service.
Mark Brown highlights that there are two potential hazards here caused by one fault; the first is the leakage of power steering fluid that could lead to a loss of power steering assistance which may or may not be rapid or sudden depending on the level of leakage. The second is the fact that because there is a significant risk of fire from the leakage of any power steering fluid which is flammable, this makes it a safety issue which needs to be sorted immediately. "If they don't," states Mark, "they're leaving owners in danger."
John Dabek also flags up that Vauxhall have known about this for some time: "They've not been proactive. In fact, they've been putting it right on the quiet when the vehicles have been in for servicing. That's not good enough. They should find the vehicles affected, bring them in by issuing a recall and then getting them properly sorted."
Martin Webb's vehicle is not in the range of vehicles is impacted by the service action. There is no evidence of a connection between the fire and the power steering system service action.
Vauxhall has no record of the content of the alleged telephone call to Mr Webb. The initial response to Mr Webb following an inspection of his complete vehicle was that there could have been a potential low pressure fluid leak but this was not necessarily directed at the steering system. Subsequent expert inspection of individual components, including the high pressure hose, concluded that there was no fault with the high pressure hose or fittings. The cause of this fire remains unknown.
Vauxhall takes every incident of a vehicle fire very seriously; each case is thoroughly investigated together with specialists and insurance companies to determine the root cause and consequently, ensure the continuing safety of its vehicles. This is a complicated task, many individual root causes are possible - customer misuse, incorrect vehicle repair, electrical systems, fuel systems, mechanical friction or other external influences.
Vauxhall currently have a Service Action in effect in the UK on 6,900 Insignia Diesel Vehicles built in Model Years 2009 and 2010. The service action was to deal with a slow leak from the power steering pipe joint and is not safety related either in terms of rapid loss of steering assistance or fire. There are no instances where the slow leak has resulted in a vehicle fire. The decision to handle this as a service update minimises the inconvenience to customers. The service action refers only to diesel-engined vehicles, petrol-engined vehicles are not affected.
None of the vehicles within the service action range that has been inspected has either exhibited a leak or shown other than a slow leak of fluid even though the system is pressurised. There is also no evidence that movement of or within the engine has caused the leak to worsen or spread.
Vauxhall cannot state categorically that no fluid would, under any circumstances, come into contact with a part of the engine where a fire could potentially result.
Should fluid leak from the joint specified in the service action, it would do so slowly. The reservoir containing the fluid (under atmospheric pressure) is relatively large and any persistent leak from this reservoir would become evident - either on the ground or at the point of the vehicle being serviced. Power assistance would only be lost when the reservoir is empty. Even at this point the driver would only lose assistance and not steering control. Evidence of loss of assistance would be most noticeable at parking speeds and up to 15-20mph. Above this speed the steering would be 'heavier', akin to a manually steered car without power assisted steering.
To date c63% (of a total of 6,900) of the vehicles in the range have been reworked with the new pipe.
If customers have any concerns about their vehicle, Vauxhall is always happy to arrange for an inspection at a local Vauxhall retailer. Customers who may wish to ascertain whether their Insignia is the subject of the service action should contact their local retailer who can advise if their vehicle is within the range and if so, whether or not it has already been reworked.
Vauxhall Customer Care telephone number: 0844 369 0112
Vauxhall retailer locations can be found at: www.vauxhall.co.uk/tools/vauxhall-locate-dealer.html