The federal government on Wednesday upgraded its investigation into Ford Windstar minivans amid new concerns about corrosion in the vehicles.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said in a posting on its website that it had begun an engineering analysis, an advanced stage in its investigation, of about 550,000 Windstars from the 1999-2003 model years.
Ford has recalled more than 600,000 of the minivans in the U.S. and Canada since August to address rear axles that can corrode and break. The U.S. recall is limited to 22 cold weather states where road salt is used during the winter.
The government investigation is focusing on new corrosion complaints. NHTSA said it had received 346 complaints of corrosion and breaking of the front subframe, which carries the engine, transaxle, steering rack and front suspension. The agency said it had received reports of three crashes and one injury.
Most of the complaints have been logged in the cold weather states and some owners have cited problems on the right side of the vehicle with the routing of the air-conditioning lines. Ford and several owners noted that condensation had been observed dripping from the front subframe.
Ford spokesman Wes Sherwood said the Dearborn, Mich., automaker was "fully cooperating with the government on the investigation."
The family of a 28-year-old Massachusetts man who was killed in a Windstar crash in October has brought increased attention to the case. The family noted that they were not informed of the recall by Ford until a week after the fatal crash. NHTSA has also raised concerns, issuing a consumer advisory in November urging owners to bring their vehicles to a dealership immediately to be examined for signs of rear-axle corrosion. NHTSA said at the time that only about 75,000 recalled vehicles had been brought to dealers.
Ford has said replacement rear axles won't be available until the beginning of 2011. The company said it is working with suppliers to speed up availability of the parts.