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BY RIP WATSON
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Ford Motor Co.'s Crown Victoria sedans, the subject of lawsuits over fatal fires and a recall of some 2003 models for potential wheel cracks, face a U.S. inquiry after police departments said axles broke or wheels fell off.

The investigation covers 287,819 police and civilian 2003 models of the Crown Victoria and the similar Mercury Grand Marquis and Lincoln Town Car, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said on its Web site. Two police fleets reported that axles broke or wheels fell off on a total of four cars, without accidents or injuries, the agency said.

In August, Ford recalled about 30,000 police and taxi versions of the 2003 Crown Victoria after the U.S. agency said the wheels might crack. The Dearborn automaker also has been sued over fatal fires and explosions of Crown Victoria police cars after rear-end crashes.

The automaker is "aware of the NHTSA evaluation and is cooperating fully with the agency," said Ford spokesman Glenn Ray. He added that it was premature to speculate on the outcome.

Ford, which has defended the safety of the sedans, holds about 85 percent of the market for U.S. police cars. Last August, Ford said it would offer a fire-suppression system as an option on Crown Victoria police vehicles, and in September 2002 agreed to equip 350,000 such cars with fuel-tank shields.

In October 2002, the U.S. agency closed an investigation of the fires in Crown Victoria police cars without finding a safety defect. NHTSA has said it received 18 reports of fatal accidents involving the police cars between 1992 and 2001.

The police agencies that reported the axle and wheel problems also said there was unusual wear on the axles of a substantial number of vehicles, NHTSA's statement said. The police departments weren't identified.

The latest investigation is a preliminary evaluation, the first step of NHTSA's process. Of those, 26 percent are upgraded to the next step, an engineering analysis. More than seven of 10 investigations that reach the second step lead to a recall.
 
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