DETROIT - Engine fires are forcing General Motors to recall the Chevy Cruze, a popular model that has helped GM win back small-car buyers.
The recall covers 475,000 vehicles made in the United States from September of 2010 through May of 2012. It's the car's fifth recall since it arrived in showrooms nearly two years ago, raising questions about the sedan's reliability.
The fires can break out when fluids drip onto a hot plastic shield below the engine. The problem occurs mainly when oil is spilled and not properly cleaned up during changes, General Motors said Friday.
The company knows of 30 fires caused by the problem, but no injuries have been reported, spokesman Alan Adler said. Flames engulfed and destroyed cars in two cases reported to federal safety officials.
GM will notify owners starting July 11 about when to bring cars to local dealers for repairs, which are free and should take about 30 minutes. Dealers will fix the problem by cutting the plastic shield to let the fluids drain to the pavement, GM said.
Cruzes with worn-out manual transmissions also can leak fluid onto the shields in rare cases, GM said.
Two union leaders at the Lordstown Complex, where the cars are built, said customers are GM's top concern.
''Our customers' satisfaction and safety are our first priority. I think all appropriate steps are in place to correct the problem,'' said Glenn Johnson, president of United Auto Workers Local 1112 at the Lordstown assembly plant.
Dave Green president of UAW Local 1714 at the Lordstown Metal Center stamping and fabricating plant, said GM is doing what it can to protect customers ''because customers and quality are at the top of our list.''
In addition, 61,000 of the recalled Cruzes are covered under another recall. GM says 249 of them have welds missing from a bracket that holds the tanks. Federal safety officials say the tanks could come lose in a crash, possibly leaking and causing fires. Dealers will secure brackets with fasteners. The fuel tank recall was the outgrowth of GM's internal safety testing, Adler said.
The Cruze, introduced in September of 2010 and sold in the United States, Canada and Israel, has been recalled far more frequently than other new models launched around the same time.
Of eight other new models that went on sale in the second half of 2010, only two have had recalls, the Mini Countryman and the Mitsubishi Outlander Sport, according to data on file with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The high number of recalls is out of the ordinary for a new model and a sign of quality problems, said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a consumer group.
"You definitely don't want to see that many recalls on a new model," he said.
Adler, the GM spokesman, said the company is backing up its products by fixing problems. "When you discover an issue, you do what's right by the customer, and that's what we've done," he said.
Five recalls in two years is nowhere near the record, Ditlow said. GM's infamous "X-Cars" from 1980 - the Chevrolet Citation, Buick Skylark, Oldsmobile Omega and Pontiac Phoenix - had 13 recalls in the first two years, Ditlow said.
A base model Cruze sedan starts at $17,595 including shipping. It seats five and gets an estimated 38 miles per gallon on the highway when equipped with a 1.4-liter engine and automatic transmission.
The Cruze has done well in a market where GM struggled for years. It was the top-selling compact in the U.S. from May through September last year.
But sales have fallen as more Toyota Corollas and Honda Civics became available. Both were scarce after a 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan hobbled production.