Less than two weeks ago, Chrysler announced it was rejecting a call by U.S. auto safety regulators to recall 2.7 million Jeep Grand Cherokees and Liberty SUVs over concerns of fires in rear crashes, releasing a detailed rebuttal that contended the vehicles were safe.
Today, on a deadline set by the government, Chrysler reversed itself. It announced it would recall all the vehicles the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had asked for and make modifications to those judged to be at risk — with a low-tech fix.
The recall covers 1993-2004 Grand Cherokee and 2002-2007 Liberty SUVs with plastic gas tanks built behind the rear axle, a design NHTSA had linked to 51 deaths by fire, a rate higher than for other SUVs. Chrysler did not immediately detail when it would begin, but said in a statement that it would inspect the SUVs and "if necessary, provide an upgrade to the rear structure of the vehicle to better manage crash forces in low-speed impacts."
NHTSA had suggested Chrysler could easily bolt on a protective plate underneath the tanks for added protection in crashes. Instead, Chrysler will look for a factory or Chrysler-sold trailer hitch; if the SUV doesn't have one, it will add one at no cost, which the automaker says will minimize the chance the tank can be punctured in a rear-end collision.
Chrysler said its data "confirms that these vehicles are not defective and are among the safest in the peer group. Nonetheless, Chrysler Group recognizes that this matter has raised concerns for its customers and wants to take further steps, in coordination with NHTSA, to provide additional measures to supplement the safety of its vehicles."
The move ends a rare standoff between an automaker and the safety agency, which has the power to order vehicle recalls but rarely has to push so hard to get an automaker to act. After safety advocates began questioning the location of the fuel tanks in the SUVs in 2009, NHTSA opened its own probe in 2010, and found 44 deaths in 32 rear-end crashes with fires related to the Grand Cherokee's fuel tank, and 7 deaths from 5 crashes in Jeep Liberty SUVs. The redesigned versions of both those SUVs moved the fuel tank further away from the rear bumper.
The contention between NHTSA and Chrysler had come to a matter of degrees. Chrysler says its number crunching found that the Grand Cherokee and Liberty had a lower rate of fires in accidents than many other models of cars and trucks, and that both met the federal safety standard for rear crash impact. But NHTSA argued the federal standard was a bare minimum, and that the data showed the Chrysler SUVs had far higher death rates from fires in rear crashes than other similar SUVs.