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U.S. regulators probing Ford, GM, Kia vehicles

DETROIT Reuters reported that U.S. safety regulators have upgraded a probe into 1997 model-year Ford Escort and Mercury Tracer compact cars because of electrical fires and inadvertent deployment of their air bags.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said Monday that 396,208 Escorts and Tracers were thought to be susceptible to the fires and sudden air bag deployments, which occur when water or engine coolant leaks into the air bag monitor system.

Ford Motor Co. , which has had numerous vehicle production and quality problems over the last two years, has reported five injuries from the fires and air bag malfunction, which can occur even when the vehicles are parked, NHTSA said.

The agency, part of the Transportation Department, opened its original investigation into the problem with Escorts and Tracers in January. It said it was now reclassifying the probe as an "engineering analysis," a step that often precedes a safety recall.

Separately, NHTSA said it had also opened an investigation into 1996-2000 model-year Buick, Oldsmobile and Pontiac sedans with 3.8-liter V6 engines because of engine compartment fires during startup.

No injuries have been reported in connection with the fires in the vehicles, which are produced by General Motors Corp. , and the number of cars subject to a potential recall has not yet been determined, NHTSA said.

It said it had also opened a preliminary evaluation of 300,000 1995-1998 model-year Sephia and Sportage vehicles produced by Kia Motors Corp. because the driver's side safety belt may not secure properly.

Five injuries have been reported because of an apparent "false latch" problem with the seat belts, which can expose drivers to unrestrained movement during a crash, NHTSA said.