I-Team: Expensive spark plugs, what some call design flaw, Ford calls routine

What some call design flaw, Ford calls routine

CINCINNATI - The owners of millions of Ford-150s and other top Ford models are paying up to thousands of dollars each just to replace spark plugs, in a problem emerging across the country as vehicles reach the recommended mileage for routine maintenance.

The culprit lies in a design Ford used in eight models between 2004 and 2008. Mechanics at Ford dealerships and independent auto shops say the plugs are prone to breaking even when the most expert mechanic does the work, with the risk of shards landing in the engine cylinder, requiring engine removal on rare occasions. Because the job is more complex, shops are charging more labor time to replace spark plugs, with additional costs for each of the eight plugs that break. Owners are reporting spending up to $2,200 for a job many say they could do themselves for under $50 on other auto models.

Ford is aware of the issue and has written special instructions to mechanics on how to remove the plugs . (To view the instructions Ford has provided for spark plug removal, visit http://media2.wcpo.com/pdfs/FORD1st.PDF )

Ford also invented a special tool to reach and remove the bottom of the spark plug that remains stuck deep in the engine in cases where the top half breaks off. Ford refused an interview on camera but told us it considers the breakages a "routine service matter."

The models impacted include the 2004 to 2008 F-150s, which Ford calls the top selling truck in America, as well as the 2005-2008 Mustang, F-Super Duty Expedition and Lincoln Navigator; the 2006-2008 Explorer, Lincoln Mark LT and Mercury Mountaineer; and the 2007-2008 Explorer Sport Trac.

While some owners and mechanics have known about the breakages for years, most owners only now are discovering the issue because they are following Ford's recommendation to change the plugs when the vehicle reaches 100,000 miles.

Steve Creamer says he always has changed his own spark plugs, averaging under $30 plus an hour or two of his time. He says he was floored when he found out he couldn't do the same for his 2005 Ford F-150. Local garages have quoted him $700 if no plugs break, up to $3,500 if they do.

"It's just ridiculous for that amount of money," Creamer said. "It's a consumer nightmare."

The I-Team talked to more than a dozen independent and Ford dealership mechanics and service shop managers, all of whom confirmed the problem, some using terms like "an engineering problem" or a "design flaw."

"This is an ‘F' on an otherwise ‘A' vehicle," said Matt Brogan, one of the owners of an independent, family-owned garage chain based in Cincinnati.

Brogan has assigned two of his most expert mechanics at his Western Hills location to handle every spark plug change with this particular 3-valve engine.

"Potentially this will happen every time," Brogan said. "The best technician with the most experience will still have them break."

Brogan says it's a hard conversation to have with customers who are expecting to pay no more than $200 for the job. Instead he has to tell them the worst case scenario.

"Worst case scenario: Severe engine damage. What should be $500 could easily be $800, could be $2,000," Brogan said. "It could be a half a day project. It could be here for a week."

Other experts confirmed Brogan's concerns.

"If you're doing a tune-up, there's nine times out of 10 that the spark plug on a particular cylinder could break off," said Maurice Jackson. He owns John Nolan, a service center that until recently was a Ford dealership where he ran the shop and managed the Ford-certified mechanics. "Probably just the way it's designed," he said.

Steve Kraft serves as the senior master technician at Airport Ford. He came in second in the nation in Ford's "Ultimate Master Technician Challenge." He then served as one of only 22 dealership mechanics from around the country on Ford's Technician Review Panel, consulting with Ford on various issues, sometimes flying to Detroit to talk to Ford's engineers.

"And they brought this up and told us what they thought and wanted to get our ideas," Kraft said of the first time engineers discussed these spark plugs in the mid-2000s.

He says they not only knew about the problem, they already had invented that special tool to extract plugs and, soon after, issued the 11-page Technical Service Bulletin with special " spark plug removal instructions. "

Kraft defends Ford.

"They took care of the problem and came up with a solution," Kraft said.

He also emphasized that with the special tool and instructions, the number of plugs he's breaking is down dramatically.

"I'm pretty successful at getting them all out. Some people aren't," Kraft said.

A spot check of more than a dozen dealerships and independent shops around Greater Cincinnati showed a wide variety in prices quoted,

from the mid-$200s if no plugs broke up to thousands of dollars if they did.

With so many mechanics continuing to have issues, owners have taken to the internet to voice their displeasure on sites like Ford-F150.net and consumeraffairs.com They've posted videos on YouTube ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=A3MPAPXBB6Y ) and complained to the government.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) confirmed it has received complaints as well. A public records request yielded 100 complaints so far just about F-150s. Consumers reported paying from $700 to $2,200. Many used words "defect" and "Ford's design flaw." Some said "spark plugs should be recalled."

Ford has issued no recall and the government hasn't requested any action on its part. While the company wouldn't provide an interview on camera, it did send an email answering questions (see below). Ford Communications Manager Marcey Evans wrote "We cannot speculate as to why some (mechanics) are still having problems" changing the plugs. Regarding costs, she said, "No motor vehicle manufacturer routinely discloses to everyone all of the maintenance costs that might be higher than average." As for calls from some consumers to recall the spark plugs, Evans wrote, "There is no safety or other issue that would justify a recall."

Across the country, attorneys have filed several class action lawsuits regarding the plugs, including one filed in the Northern District of Ohio representing auto owners in 24 states (read that lawsuit at http://media2.wcpo.com/pdfs/FORD2nd.PDF ) This month, a federal panel ruled to consolidate two other actions from California and Florida into the Ohio suit.

Click here for one example of a tool to remove these plugs ( http://www.amazon.com/ Lisle-LIS65600-Broken-Remover-Engines/ dp/ B00267PZUK).

Ford's initial statement (attributed to Marcey Evans, Corporate News Manager at Ford Motor Company):

Thank you for the opportunity to participate in your story, however, we are going to decline at this time. As you may know, the issue was addressed in detail by a Technical Service Bulletin we issued more than five years ago. In addition to that, Ford provided a special tool to dealers to assist in the removal of the spark plugs, which is now also readily available in the aftermarket. Since this is now a routine service matter, we do not wish to participate in an on camera interview about it. Thanks very much.

Ford's answer to our follow-up questions (attributed to Marcey Evans, Corporate News Manager at Ford Motor Company) :

Q. Since the Technical Service Bulletin, highly trained mechanics continue to have problems removing these spark plugs, even with the special tool invented to deal with this issue. Can you respond to why?

A. We cannot speak for the mechanics referred to in this question. All routine maintenance requires use of proper procedures. This is particularly true as motor vehicles become more and more sophisticated. Spark plug replacement is no exception. We have issued the TSB, which describes -- in detail -- the process for changing the plugs and we have developed the tool to help them further, which is readily available on the market. Based on our investigation, there should rarely be a problem if this process is followed. We cannot speculate as to why some are still having problems completing the service, but we are aware of instances where problems occurred because the proper procedure was not followed.

Q. Some of your dealerships do not guarantee their quotes because they say there's always a possibility lower parts of the plugs may drop into the cylinder despite their best efforts as trained Ford mechanics. Can you comment on why Ford dealers using Ford's special tools still can't guarantee a set price?

A. Because our dealers are independent business owners, there will be some variability in the way they decide to quote for a repair. Ford does not mandate what a dealer can charge for a repair or the process they use to quote a repair… The cost of any routine maintenance procedure will always vary from vehicle to vehicle, with some being above average and others below. No motor vehicle manufacturer routinely discloses to everyone all of the maintenance costs that might be higher than average.

Q. Owners used to replacing their own spark plugs in vehicles, Ford included, are complaining that instead of $20 to $40, they're looking at… sometimes thousands of dollars if the plugs break into the cylinder. Why hasn't Ford issued a warning?

A. Ford is aware of no evidence to support the prices quoted. In addition, many components of modern vehicles have become more sophisticated over the years, making it advisable for consumers to have their vehicles serviced by trained technicians who keep up with new procedures. No owner should attempt any maintenance procedure without being familiar with the recommended process for his or her specific vehicle. Ford has issued a Technical Service Bulletin to

address the process in detail and developed the special tool, which is readily available to technicians.

Q. Some are calling for a recall on these spark plugs. What is Ford's position on this?

A. There is no safety or other issue that would justify a recall.

Q. You call this a "routine service matter" yet mechanics say there is nothing routine about changing these spark plugs because they never know how many will break. How do you respond?

A. Ford does not know what mechanics this question refers to. Ford does know that trained mechanics employed by Ford dealers who follow the recommended procedure can and do remove plugs with few problems.

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