|BMW cars are parked at the company's service center in Seocho-gu, Seoul, Friday. / Yonhap|
A series of fires involving BMW vehicles here is tarnishing the German cars' premium image that has been built on their prowess in technology and safety.
Along with the 2015 emissions rigging scandal which also halted sales of Volkswagen and Audi in Korea and worldwide, the BMW fires and the company's moves to address the fiasco are disappointing many consumers who desire German cars as their dream cars.
"I was planning to buy the 320d sedan at the end of this year," said Kim Jun-seop, 32, a Seoul-based office worker. "When several fires were reported last month, I didn't think that seriously about it, but now I've lost confidence in BMW and I'm looking for non-German import brands."
As of Friday morning, 36 BMW cars have been reported to have caught fire this year, after two more sedans burned on the road on Thursday.
Of them, a 2011 730Ld model that burned in Sacheon, South Gyeongsang Province, was not included in the July 26 recall list, which BMW Korea announced to fix 106,317 cars that risked catching fire.
Along with the recall plan, BMW Korea has been conducting safety checks for worried drivers, but the 520d model that caught fire in Mokpo last week was reportedly one of the cars that underwent the safety check, casting doubts that BMW may not be correct in finding the root cause of the fires.
"In the past, German automakers' domestic share in Korea's import car market climbed to over 70 percent, but it declined after dieselgate," said Kim Phil-soo, a professor at Daelim University's Automotive Engineering Department. "And Korean consumers enjoy a wider range of choices among import brands these days."
"With the BMW fires and the company's inappropriate handling of the issue drawing discussions on industry regulations, another heavy blow was dealt to consumer loyalty of German cars," Kim said, adding that the issue is not limited to BMW but affects the entire industry.
As BMW cars continue to catch fire and BMW Korea is criticized for "belatedly" issuing the recall, the government said it will push forward introducing "punitive compensation scheme," that force carmakers to compensate for more than the damage if the cars should be found to have been manufactured using deliberate shortcuts.
"Not only BMW but other German automakers are the envy of other car brands and are respected by them for their driving performance, quality, premium image and heritage," an official at a domestic carmaker said. "But the recent incidents involving German cars are making people think, ‘German cars these days are not what they used to be.'"
Three German carmakers' Korean units — BMW Korea, Mercedes-Benz Korea and Porsche Korea — were involved in an emissions rigging scandal or changing parts without license, last year. The Ministry of Environment fined them a total of 70.3 billion won ($62.55 million). Of them, BMW Korea was fined 60.9 billion won for rigging emissions test results of 28 models and changing parts of 11 models without license.
The three carmakers appealed the decision claiming their actions were not deliberate, but the environment ministry rejected their appeal. Though the German carmakers are still consolidating their high positions in Korea's import car market, experts say a change can happen as a result of the poorly built cars by German manufacturers.
As the BMW fires become a news magnet, other carmakers in Korea are also paying keen attention to check the fire risks of their products.
"In the early stage of the BMW fires, we thought it would end as a matter of BMW only," a separate industry official said. "But now it is becoming an issue that raises concern all across the automobile industry and more automakers are enhancing their efforts to prevent defects."