You don't want to put off changing the oil ... unless you have a new Honda CR-V. Federal safety officials have just re-opened their probe into a series of 44 fires that occurred in new CR-Vs, most of them just after the first oil change.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) earlier concluded a preliminary investigation, saying the fires had been caused by oil leaks caused by faulty work by Honda mechanics.

That was in July. But now it's September and, despite a stepped-up training program at Honda dealerships, the popular SUVs are still catching fire shortly after their owners bring them in for their first oil change.

Honda thinks it's identified the problem but it doesn't seem to be able to fix it. Honda officials say that technicians are leaving the rubber gasket from the factory-installed oil filter on the engine block and placing the new filter on top of it.

When that happens, the filter doesn't seal properly, allowing oil to leak out. After a few minutes of driving, the CR-V's manifold heats up and ignites the leaking oil. Although there have been no injuries, there have been 71 "incidents," including 44 fires. In many of the fires, the brand-new vehicle burned to the ground.

The procedure that NHTSA has now undertaken is called an "engineering analysis," and it is the most serious of the several types of inquiries the agency conducts. Such analyses often end in a recall.

The problem presently facing NHTSA and Honda is that it's not clear what would be fixed in a recall. The fires have been occurring in 2003 and 2004 model CR-Vs. But Honda engineers say there's nothing different about the oil filter in those models and they are at a loss to explain the rash of fires.

Dealers are becoming touchy about it. They feel that Honda is unfairly blaming them and their service technicians for what the dealers think is a design defect of some kind. The NHTSA investigation's goal is to get to the bottom of the problem and, if possible, fix it.