Reports of steering problems in 2011 Hyundai Sonata prompt NHTSA investigation

Federal safety regulators have opened an investigation into reports of steering problems in the hot-selling 2011 Hyundai Sonata sedan.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is looking into whether the vehicles can sustain a separation in the steering shaft assembly that results in a loss of steering capability. Regulators are also examining whether a bolt in the steering system can become loose.

The vehicles involved in the probe were manufactured during the same month at the Hyundai factory in Alabama and had fewer than 600 miles at the time of the alleged incidents, regulators said.

About 16,000 Sonatas might be involved. Hyundai builds the new-generation Sonata and its Santa Fe sport-utility vehicle at the plant.

No reported injuries or accidents have been linked to complaints.

Hyundai spokesman Jim Trainor said the automaker has seen only two reports of a steering problem.

“We brought the cars back to the dealerships and fixed them, and they are back on the road,” Trainor said. The automaker will “cooperate with NHTSA as we get more details.”

Through the first seven months this year, Hyundai sales have risen 23.8% to 309,888, outpacing the industry-wide gain of 14.8%, according to Autodata Corp. Hyundai’s gain is largely attributable to Sonata sales, which have risen 45% to 107,085 through the same period, Autodata said.

The probe comes at time when Hyundai is just about to launch its fanciest and most expensive vehicle yet — the $60,000 Equus sedan. The vehicle, which will go on sale this year, is designed to compete with Lexus, Mercedes-Benz and other luxury nameplates.

Last month, federal safety officials opened an investigation into a complaint about the steering system in Kia’s small car, Soul. Kia is owned by Hyundai, and the two brands share technology. The probe started when a Kia driver reported losing control of his car after the steering wheel came off.

Although a single complaint normally doesn’t trigger a safety probe, safety regulators said, the incident is cause for concern because “it occurred without warning on a new vehicle at low mileage and resulted in a complete loss of steering as well as a compromised brake system.”

The 2010 Kia Soul owner reported that the steering shaft decoupled from the steering wheel as the vehicle was being driven, resulting in a loss of control.

Additionally, the driver said the decoupled steering shaft fell into a position that interfered with the ability to apply the brakes. The complaint said the vehicle was 2 months old and had been driven 4,300 miles when the steering mechanism failed.