Smart car model under investigation bursts into flames on Highway 417

A Swiss student in Ottawa was heading west on the Queensway last week when fire broke out in the 2008 Smart car she was driving. Safety authorities in the United States are investigating other unexplained fires in cars of the same make and model year.

U.S. authorities are investigating reports of engine fires in Smart Fortwo vehicles

The 2008 Smart Fortwo that caught fire and burned on Highway 417 on Oct. 18 sits in a towing lot. (Susan Burgess)

A Swiss woman who arrived in Ottawa in August to study English had one of the most terrifying experiences of her life on the road last week.

Aurélie Rossier, 34, was alone and heading west on Highway 417 near Bronson last Wednesday when the interior of the 2008 Smart Fortwo she was driving suddenly filled with smoke.

"I couldn't see the road anymore. I couldn't breathe," said Rossier, who spoke with CBC in French.

In a panic, Rossier pulled over to the side of the road, opened the door and quickly got out. Another driver stopped to help and urged her to get away from the vehicle. 

Moments later the car was engulfed in flames. 

Aurélie Rossier was driving her friend's Smart car on the highway when the interior suddenly filled with smoke. After she pulled over and got out, the car was engulfed in flames. (Marc Caron)

"To see a car burned like this, it was really crazy for me," Rossier said. "I was really, really scared."

As the flames shot high into the air, Rossier said she saw the smoke change colour from white, to grey, to black, and heard the sound of windows shattering from the heat.

Smart car fires being investigated in the U.S.

Ottawa Fire Services got its first calls about the fire at approximately 12:19 p.m., according to spokesperson Danielle Cardinal, with witnesses reporting a fire at the rear of the vehicle.

The cause of the fire has not been investigated, and why the car burned is a mystery to Rossier. She said she was smoking a cigarette while driving, but hadn't dropped it, and was adamant that dropped cigarette ash could not explain why the car would fill with thick smoke "at a snap of the fingers."

Firefighters were called to extinguish the blaze. (Marc Caron)

Rossier is not alone in her experience. The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating several unexplained fires in Smart cars.

The U.S. investigation involves the 2008 and 2009 Smart Fortwo Coupe and Smart Fortwo Cabrio. The "preliminary evaluation" began last December with an investigation of eight complaints of alleged engine compartment fires that occurred while driving or shortly after engine shutdown.

In Smart cars, the engine is located at the back of the vehicle.

Analysis has now identified 27 incidents of open flame fires originating in the engine compartments of the vehicles.

Investigators have also examined data on fire-related insurance claims. That analysis revealed that the 2008 Smart Fortwo "had a significantly higher claim frequency than its peers," and also that there was a "sharp increase" in claims in 2015.

Vehicle investigations in the U.S. are complex, and this one is now at a stage called "engineering analysis." After that analysis is complete, and if evidence of a safety-related defect is found, authorities could recommend a recall of the vehicles.

Other Smart car fires reported in Canada

Transport Canada told CBC last Friday it was aware of only one fire in a 2008 Smart vehicle, and the fire was determined not to have been caused by a safety defect. A spokesperson declined to provide details about the cause of the fire or its location "due to privacy issues."

However, CBC found another mysterious Smart car fire in eastern Ontario.

In November 2010, Marion Wyatt was asleep with her husband at their home in Brockville when they were awakened by a sound they later surmised was caused by the tires exploding on their 2008 Smart Fortwo.

"The car was completely engulfed," said Wyatt. "Flames shot higher than the house."

Marion Wyatt was asleep with her husband in November 2010 when they awoke to the sound of exploding tires around 1 a.m. Their 2008 Smart Fortwo 'literally melted into the driveway.' (Jonathan Wyatt)

Fortunately for the couple, the car was not inside their garage, so damage to the house was minimal.

"The car itself literally melted into the driveway," said Wyatt. 

Police investigated the incident, Wyatt said, but did not discover what caused the fire, which occurred about 12 hours after the car had last been driven. The family also reported the fire to Mercedes-Benz, who Wyatt said "were kind of surprised," but didn't follow up with her after that initial call.

Wyatt said she's unaware of any investigation by Transport Canada into the fire, or of anyone referring the incident to the department for investigation.

Ottawa Smart car fire not being investigated

In Canada, potentially dangerous vehicle defects are investigated by Transport Canada, but so far, no one appears to be pursuing what happened to the Smart Car Rossier was driving.

Rossier had borrowed the car from her friend Aaron Matharu, who told CBC it belonged to his parents and was bought used about five years ago. After the fire, he said, he called customer service at Mercedes-Benz to inform it of the location of the car so it could investigate.

"They were in total denial, [saying] that they'd never heard of such [an] occurrence and this was the first time," said Matharu, who discovered for himself the U.S. investigation of the 2008 Smart Fortwo. 

The insurance company was similarly disengaged, Matharu said, because the vehicle was not covered for fire damage. The company did not say anything about referring the car fire to Transport Canada, but Matharu said he would make a report himself.

CBC contacted Mercedes-Benz Canada requesting an interview about the car fire in Ottawa as well as the investigation in the U.S., but received only a statement.

"The safety of our customers is our primary concern and our colleagues in the U.S. continue to fully co-operate with NHTSA in its inquiry and support all investigations to their full extent."

Potential defects frequently not investigated

A consumer watchdog for drivers said potentially serious defects often go unreported in Canada.

Consumers in the U.S. are well aware of who to call, but people in Canada don't know where to complain if they suspect a safety defect in their vehicle has caused property damage, said George Iny, director of the Automobile Protection Association.

Aurélie Rossier had just moments to escape the Smart car she was driving caught fire and filled with smoke. (Susan Burgess)

In some cases, Iny said, insurance companies make settlements with the car manufacturer instead of reporting incidents to Transport Canada. 

"If they can get some money from the car maker, they'll agree to a hush-hush deal," said Iny, who believes that insurers should be required by law to make a report if they have any reason to suspect a safety defect.

Reports of even one or two fires in Smart cars in Canada are alarming and worthy of investigation, Iny said.

"The Smart is small and it's made of plastic. So when it catches fire, the event is over pretty quickly," Iny said. "A fire spreads very quickly inside a vehicle, and you always have barely enough time to get out before the vehicle is in flames. But we're wondering if the risk here might be even greater."

About the Author

Susan Burgess

Associate Producer

Susan Burgess is an associate producer on CBC Radio's All In A Day. You can reach her at or on Twitter @susanmburgess.