Lawyers representing nearly two million former and current owners of Ford vehicles prone to stalling are recommending the automaker replace what a judge said are faulty ignition devices, Associated Press (AP) reported today. The recommendation, which could cost an estimated $US300 million, came months after a California judge ordered the vehicles recalled as part of a statewide class-action suit.

AP said that Ford, which the judge said concealed the shabby parts from government inspectors, said it is reviewing the proposal which is backed by auto-safety groups.

Even with the fix, however, the cars may stall in traffic. But attorneys and consumer groups said it was the best of three recall options.

“It’s problematic, but there is less likelihood that they will stall with the new modules,” Jeff Fazio, a lead attorney in the case against Ford Motor Co., told AP.

The Alameda County Superior Court suit challenges Ford’s placement of the thick film ignition (TFI) module, which regulates electric current to the spark plugs. In 300 models sold between 1983 and 1995, the module was mounted on the distributor near the engine block, where it was exposed to high temperatures.

Superior Court Judge Michael E. Ballachey, the nation’s only judge to order a vehicle recall, found last year that Ford was warned by an engineer that high temperatures would cause the device to fail and stall the engine.

Internal documents show that Ford confirmed the problem in internal studies, and could have moved the module to a cooler spot for an extra $US4 per vehicle.

Ballachey said Ford concealed the information from federal safety regulators, who were studying hundreds of complaints about Ford vehicles stalling. The government found no safety problems with the modules.

AP said that, under the recall proposal, Ford would replace the older modules with modern, heat-resistant versions. But they would still be placed along the distributor and exposed to high temperatures, which could cause them to stall.

Nevertheless, Fazio and consumer groups agree with the method. A second option, mounting the ignition devices in a new location, could take years to engineer – whereas a new, modern ignition device could be mounted immediately.

“When cars are stalling on the highway, time is of the essence,” Clarence Ditlow, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Auto Safety, told AP.

A third option, for Ford to buy back affected vehicles, would not be fair to the poor because they would only get fair market value and might not be able to afford a new car, analysts said.

Ford, which has denied its vehicles stall although it has settled dozens of wrongful death and injury suits in connection with stalled vehicles, hasn’t signed off on the plaintiffs’ proposal.

“We just received it. We are reviewing it,” Ford attorney Richard Warmer told AP. A hearing is set for next month.

A problem with the proposal is that it could expose the automaker to even more financial liability, Warmer said. The plan demands that the automaker track how well the modern ignition devices are performing and make quarterly reports.

If the results are not satisfactory to Fazio or consumer groups, Ford could be forced to spends hundreds of millions more fixing the problem again, AP said.

Regardless of the recall method chosen, Ford told AP, it would appeal the recall order, which affects all 1983-1995 Ford models in California – an estimated two million cars and trucks. The automaker said judges do not have the same power as the federal government does to order a vehicle recall.

Similar suits are pending in other states and could develop into a nationwide class action suit, affecting some 20 million vehicles.

AP reported that, in court papers, Ford said it would cost about $US150 per vehicle to replace the ignition device. That’s about $US3 billion to fix every affected vehicle nationwide, although recalls usually reach only about 60 percent of affected vehicles.

The automaker also could be exposed to millions in punitive damages, but none of the suits have progressed to that stage, AP said.