PHOENIX (AP) – U-Haul said Thursday that it will no longer rent trailers to customers driving Ford Explorers, citing excessive costs in defending liability lawsuits related to the popular sports utility vehicle.

U-Haul International, North America’s largest trailer rental company with more than 17,000 outlets, said the decision was not based on safety concerns.

“U-Haul has chosen not to rent behind this tow vehicle based on our history of excessive costs in defending lawsuits involving Ford Explorer towing combinations,” the Phoenix-based company said.

Ford has maintained the Explorer is safe. In 2002, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration traced Explorer tire failures and resulting rollovers to manufacturing flaws in the Firestone tires.

Although federal regulators have said there isn’t enough evidence to show that the Explorer contributed to the tire defects, many of the problem tires were equipped on Explorers. Bridgestone/Firestone is currently trying to settle 30 class-action lawsuits related to the defective tires.

U-Haul’s policy, implemented Dec. 22, applies to all model years of the Explorer, company spokeswoman Joanne Fried said.

Customers have complained, but the costs of defending Explorer-related lawsuits have become too high, she said.

“It’s not something we really wanted to do, to be honest,” she said. “It’s something you put off as long as you can.”

Officials at Ford Motor Co. were surprised by U-Haul’s decision.

Company spokesman Jon Harmon said Ford officials were talking with U-Haul and hoped the decision would be short-lived. But he noted that the concerns were not about the safety of the Explorer or its towing capabilities.

Fried declined to say how many lawsuits the company has faced. U-Haul was involved in a lawsuit that Bridgestone/Firestone settled out of court in September. It involved three college students who were injured when their Explorer overturned while pulling a U-Haul trailer.

The only other vehicle similarly banned from U-Haul trailer rentals is soft-top Jeep Wranglers, which the company believes pose a safety risk, she said.

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AP-ES-01-08-04 1744EST

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