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Washington — The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Monday it is opening an investigation into 121,000 Dodge Dart cars over braking problems.

NHTSA said it has received 18 complaints that the brake pedal can suddenly become hard to depress and that braking distance unexpectedly increased on 2013 Dodge Dart cars.

Some drivers report hearing a “pop noise or an air hissing noise when applying the brake pedal, followed by a hard pedal feel and reduced brake effectiveness.”

Others said they had to use the parking brake to stop the vehicle; while other owners said the brake booster and master cylinder were replaced to correct the problem.

Fiat Chrysler spokesman Eric Mayne said the automaker is “fully cooperating.”

NHTSA has opened other recent investigations into Fiat Chrysler.

One complaint filed in May said a young driver was parallel parked the car so he could run into a store. A parent stayed in the car and when her son returned, they heard a “loud popping sound.”

In April, another driver reported that the braking system shut down at 50 mph.

“I feared for my life. It is one of the scariest things I have ever dealt with. I am lucky I am able to write this letter to you,” the complaint said, saying the vehicle had just 36,000 miles on it.

On Tuesday, Fiat Chrysler’s top U.S. safety official, Scott Kunselman — who is senior vice president for vehicle safety and regulatory compliance at FCA US LLC — is among those set to testify at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on air bag recalls.

Last week, NHTSA said it is expanding the number of Fiat Chrysler recalls it will review at a July 2 public hearing to 22 campaigns — and found widespread evidence the automaker has failed to meet legal requirements to fix defects, make replacement parts available and notify owners and regulators in a timely fashion.

In May, NHTSA said it was calling the Italian-American automaker in for the unprecedented hearing to address questions about recall campaigns covering 11 million vehicles since 2013. In a notice Thursday, NHTSA said it is adding two additional recalls from 2014 covering another 1 million vehicles to its review.

Earlier this month, Fiat Chrysler said it will address all of the agency’s concerns and said it was taking steps to move faster and boost recall completion rates. The automaker’s total submission was more than 5 million pages, the company said.

NHTSA said the automaker has repeatedly failed to abide by requirements to have replacement parts, notify owners and NHTSA.

“NHTSA has tentatively concluded that Fiat Chrysler has not remedied vehicles in a reasonable time and has not adequately remedied vehicles,” the agency said in its notice.

NHTSA could fine Fiat Chrysler up to $35 million for each of the recall campaigns if it determines it failed to meet legal requirements — or could order the automaker “to take specified action to meet those requirements, including by ordering the manufacturer to refund the purchase price of the defective or noncomplying vehicles, less a reasonable allowance for depreciation.”

DShepardson@detroitnews.com

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