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MINI Cooper Steering Probe May Signal Industry-Wide Issue


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2007 MINI Cooper S

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Washington DC September 29, 2010; The AIADA newsletter reported that BMW's iconic MINI brand is under federal investigation because power steering on as many as 80,000 2004 and 2005 Mini Cooper models could fail.

James R. Healey at USA Today says it also could be harbinger of a deluge of future steering complaints as automakers overhaul the most basic control system on a car, often making it feel unfamiliar.

The probe by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), begun Friday and disclosed Tuesday, cites complaints about sudden and unexpected loss of power-steering assist. That makes the car hard to steer and could cause the driver to lose control.

NHTSA lists no mishaps due to the problem, and MINI says it knows of none. Automakers are switching to electric motors instead of hydraulic pumps to provide power-steering assist. Electric power-steering systems (EPS) can add 0.1 of a mpg, or more, by eliminating drag on the engine caused by hydraulic pumps.

But EPS is hard to tune to make it feel similar to the age-old hydraulic systems. NHTSA says that since about 2006, it has "seen an increase in investigations of vehicles equipped with electric power steering."

It's unclear, though, if that's because EPS is inherently troublesome or simply is more common, the agency says.

Click here for more on the possible role of EPS in vehicle steering complaints.