Maker Insists Feds Overstate Risk Of Fires With Grand Cherokee, Liberty Models



It's not often that recall stories make it above the fold, in that old newspaper parlance, but when one shows up as the lead story on the network evening news programs, you know it's something big.

And so it is with Chrysler snubbing its nose at a request by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to recall 2.7 million Jeeps the feds insist are at risk of potentially catastrophic fuel tank fires in a rear-end collision.

For its part, the automaker insists that "the vehicles are safe and not defective," adding that "incidents... occur less than once for every million years of vehicle operations." And it insists it has the data to back that up.

But sometimes you can't win for losing and even if Chrysler is right, there is a serious chance that it may nonetheless lose the battle in the public eye, especially if it is seen as putting profits before safety.


Paul EisensteinPaul A. Eisenstein is Publisher of TheDetroitBureau.com and a 30-year veteran of the automotive beat. His editorials bring his unique perspective and deep understanding of the auto world to Autoblog readers on a regular basis. This story was reprinted with permission from the author and TheDetroitBureau.com.



Jeep Grand CherokeeJeep Liberty

There is little doubt that recalling 2.7 million Jeep Liberty and Grand Cherokee models would incur huge expense. According to NHTSA, the problem is that the affected models have their gas tanks mounted behind the rear axle, where they are particularly vulnerable in a crash. Depending upon what sort of fix might be required, that could add up to $100s, perhaps even $1,000s of dollars per vehicle, so the price tag could jump into the billions at the high end.

The maker has already recalled more than 750,000 vehicles for fuel tank-related problems, including 469,000 Jeeps and nearly 300,000 Ram Trucks and Dodge Dakotas. But NHTSA wants Chrysler to go significantly further, insisting its analysis of crash records shows there is a potentially serious risk.

The agency's records indicate there have been 15 deaths and 41 injuries resulting from rear-impact collisions and subsequent fires. Independent safety experts claim those numbers are understated. There have been 51 deaths, according to Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, who told ABC News that "This will be the biggest recall since the Ford Pinto."

It is certainly the biggest recall-related news story since Toyota came under the microscope for so-called unintended acceleration problems a few years back.

It is certainly the biggest recall-related news story since Toyota came under the microscope for so-called unintended acceleration problems a few years back. The Japanese giant ultimately recalled about 10 million vehicles to deal with sticky accelerator pedals and loose floor mats that could "entrap" an accelerator pedal making it difficult to bring a vehicle to a halt.

Toyota also faced a series of record fines from NHTSA for delaying several runaway car recalls. But once the story went public, the maker took a mostly conciliatory approach, Toyota Motor Co. President Akio Toyoda shedding tears when grilled by a congressional committee.

Toyota has rebuffed arguments that its vehicles are prone to electronic gremlins, and its position has been backed up by several government studies. Nonetheless, the maker has taken steps to settle a number of lawsuits filed on behalf of those injured or killed, allegedly in unintended acceleration incidents.

That has helped the maker keep images of burned and maimed bodies out of the headlines. And while there were many who speculated Toyota's once sterling image might suffer, it has largely rebuilt consumer confidence in the US market.

German maker Audi also faced claims of runaway cars in the late 1980s.

German maker Audi also faced claims of runaway cars in the late 1980s, and though it was ultimately redeemed in a federal investigation that largely put the blame on driver error, the maker's image was tattered as it took a hardline stand, rejecting fault. By 1992, Audi nearly pulled out of the US market and two decades later it still lags its luxury rivals, arguably due to the unintended acceleration scare.

Then there's General Motors, which also stared down an order for a massive recall of its midsize X-Cars back in the 1980s. NHTSA insisted they suffered from serious braking problems but GM refused to comply and took the government on in court, ultimately winning when it convinced the judge the proposed recall was unnecessary.

But while GM might have won the battle, it arguably lost the war, many industry analysts realizing that consumers ultimately concluded that GM was simply intent on putting profits above safety by refusing to acknowledge a defect that many reviewers had long written about.

The Chrysler case is a bit less certain. While the federal safety agency contends the Jeep models performed worse than all but one similar model in rear crashes, Chrysler's analysis of the data purportedly comes up with a very different result. The maker insists its position has nothing to do with cost and everything to do with being reasonable.

While the federal safety agency contends the Jeep models performed worse than all but one similar model in rear crashes, Chrysler's analysis of the data purportedly comes up with a very different result.

The question is how the public will view its no-go stand. The maker clearly has some supporters. During an interview on the debate, influential WJR radio morning talk show host Paul W. Smith referred to NHTSA's demands as "clearly another example... of government excess," making less than veiled reference to ongoing scandals such as the one tarnishing the IRS over its investigation of Tea Party groups.

There's no question there's a sizable share of the population that distrusts any government action that "unfairly" impacts business. On the other hand, there was also a public outcry when it became clear that Toyota had manipulated NHTSA into canceling an earlier proposed recall for unintended acceleration problems.

That backlash has led the agency to take a much tougher stand on safety problems and may be one of the reasons behind the proposed Jeep recall.

So, while Chrysler may insist it "stands behind the quality and safety of its vehicles," it will have to face off against TV images of burning Jeeps and quotes from opponents like Jenelle Embrey, who watched several friends die in a burning Grand Cherokee, and wrapped up the ABC News report by declaring, "Something has to be done. It can't be done soon enough."

It is a risky strategy Chrysler has engaged in and if it loses the battle the costs, in terms of image and lost sales, could far outweigh what it might have to spend to recall 2.7 million Jeeps.


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    • 1 Second Ago
  • 114 Comments
      EJD1984
      • 1 Year Ago
      If NHTSA is trying to apply modern safety standards to older model cars that are still on the road (and were originally approved for their time), how may VW Beetles and Muscle Cars would have to be recalled and upgraded by using this case as a model?
      Thipps
      • 1 Year Ago
      I guess it all depends. Look what happened with Tesla and huge negative review. Elon played it perfectly and gained respect and sales from it. Dont forget many people out there including myself understand the government constantly oversteps it boundaries and is overall a giant bureaucracy which often looses site of the goal at hand. Just read comments on all of the blogs about this yesterday, Many openly support Chrysler actions. so i guess im saying is this could go both ways it just depends on how its played and of course the media spin factor
        Thipps
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Thipps
        wow...sorry for the poorly written comment. I should proof read
      garytravis
      • 1 Year Ago
      I long for the day when Clarence Ditlow is no longer sourced for comment in issues related to autos. He's been bought and paid for by those seeking multimillion dollar pay days via settlement classes.
      misterbertram
      • 1 Year Ago
      UPDATE: NHTSA issues mandatory recall on every automobile ever made from the beginning of time. Their reasoning; cars are unsafe and they will kill you, ride a bicycle instead.
      Garret
      • 1 Year Ago
      One other thing: I won't reiterate what has been said to back up Jeep's reputation, but I would like to point out that out of the 5 million or so Grand Cherokees and Libertys that were sold (not to be confused with the 2.7 million left on the road), think about the number of them that were involved in rear end collisions since 1993. You would have to think in the BILLIONS of miles driven, thousands and thousands of rear end collisions have occurred. Only 44 resulted in fires, over 20 years and billions of miles?
      Garret
      • 1 Year Ago
      One thing I've noticed that hasn't been mentioned anywhere: Why is the XJ Cherokee not subject to the same recall request? The XJ was manufactured from 84-01 with the exact same fuel tank design as the ZJ. Wouldn't it stand to reason that the XJ would be just as "dangerous" as the other Jeeps mentioned in the recall? I'd be very interested to see the data regarding rear end collisions with the XJ since it isn't included in the NHTSA's witch hunt. I'd be willing to bet the data would not support their conclusion on the other Jeep models. For the record, I feel just as safe in my 93 ZJ as any other vehicle built in that era.
      Lucky Vanos
      • 1 Year Ago
      Domestic = Deathtrap. American born workers only want to work in an air con office & no less than $20 hr or they think their owed something, look at the trailer trash licking taco shells. I have 250 employees & all are 1st gen or just moved here immigrants & my company runs like clockwork.
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Lucky Vanos
        [blocked]
        Chris
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Lucky Vanos
        Oh Lucky, you are so misguided. Speaking of "deathtraps", let's talk about all of those Toyotas and the whole "unintended acceleration" debacle. What was it, jammed accelerators, faulty floor mats, or just the people who drive them? In my observation, Toyota drivers do tend to be some of the worst, and most careless drivers out there. Either way, the whole thing played out kind of like the cheesy 1980s horror movies 'Trucks' and 'Maximum Overdrive'. Hmmm, I'm thinking of a good idea for a sequel of one of those movies, or perhaps a spoof comedy...
          • 1 Year Ago
          @Chris
          [blocked]
        Spies1
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Lucky Vanos
        Yep, I knew when I saw that -18 rating, yonomo200 had to be around with her dozens of accounts. The always predictable yomama strikes again.
          • 1 Year Ago
          @Spies1
          [blocked]
      johnnythemoney
      • 1 Year Ago
      It's exactly sentences like "Chrysler snubbing its nose at a request by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to recall 2.7 million Jeeps" that could make the public think Chrysler is looking more like an ass than a company that bases its decisions and statements on science, engineering and facts. Keep it objective AB.
      Jason
      • 1 Year Ago
      From the little I\'ve read, I\'m with Chrysler on this one. As long as the car and it\'s systems behave as intended in all reasonable use scenarios, I don\'t see how changing standards of safety should now start to mean recalling things that were once considered safe enough. It doesn\'t sound like the design behaves any different than was always understood, they just seem to want to apply the (slightly) higher incident rates as reason for a recall. This is a tough one from the PR side but easy from the technical/business side. IMO
      sirjaysmith
      • 1 Year Ago
      Another useless witch hunt. The rate of fire is so low it's a freak accident, not a problem at all unless you want to worry about every car you get into because they all have the same likelihood of killing you in accidents. I'm getting real sick of this government.
        Porsche4life
        • 1 Year Ago
        @sirjaysmith
        You and I both my friend
          • 1 Year Ago
          @Porsche4life
          [blocked]
          Chris
          • 1 Year Ago
          @Porsche4life
          I hope get eaten by a tiger, autoblah.
        BC
        • 1 Year Ago
        @sirjaysmith
        But the same was true of the Pinto, possibly more so, and yet most people who weren't alive at the time, and even many who were, accept the meme that the Pinto was a death trap and deliberately designed so, regardless of their political leanings. So Chrysler better have a very convincing public relations team if they want to win in the court of public opinion.
          Dave
          • 1 Year Ago
          @BC
          Four people died in Pinto fires.... The only reason the Pinto was labeled as a fire bomb, was the memo inter office that stated it was too expensive to fix for the risk. Ford learned and when the Crown Vic was looked at (11 fires/7 deaths) they redesigned the trunk and put Kevlar around the tank and made a fire suppression system available, but everybody still points at them. Considering how many Jeeps haul kids in child seats, I can;t imagine watching a child burn. They should do something.
        Chris
        • 1 Year Ago
        @sirjaysmith
        That's what happens when you have a government run by people with massive egos. In going above and beyond to justify themselves, all common sense goes out the window, and the people are ultimately screwed.
      Jake S
      • 1 Year Ago
      A coworker of mine bought a brand new Jeep Grand Cherokee a few years back and drove it across the state. When she was coming down Snoqualmie Pass on I-90, the entire transmission fell out from underneath the car and put her and her 2 year old daughter into a grassy median at about 65 mph. They were both hurt but survived. Jeep corportate told her she needed to work with the dealership. The dealership then told her they would not take the car back, but would fix it instead. It wasn\'t until she got an attorney who threatened to go national with the story that they told her they\'d give her a new one. She told them she wanted her money back. They said no, she filed suit and they immediately settled out of court (she got enough from the settlement to buy a new Toyota SUV free and clear). Given what she went through, I would never consider buying a Jeep or Chrysler product. I know this will get a lot of thumbs-down from the die-hard jeep crowd, but honestly, a transmission shouldn\'t be falling out of a brand new car. Given how plant workers from Jeep and Chrysler were caught smoking weed and drinking on their breaks and still kept their jobs, I think you\'d have to be a bit crazy to buy any of their vehicles.
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Jake S
        [blocked]
        Jason
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Jake S
        Even if the facts were as you explained I don\'t see how any manufacturer of any substantive and costly product would have behaved differently. You don\'t just replace a $40k car over a verbal complaint, I think we would all need the power of a lawyer and the legitimate threat of a lawsuit before a car company would volunteer us a replacement vehicle. As for buying \"any of their vehicles\" since I had never heard of other cars dropping their trans randomly I would not rule out buying one from Chrysler, nor should you. The vast majority keep their transmissions hanging just behind the engines without incident.
        rmkensington
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Jake S
        So all 20 bolts that hold that transmission in just suddenly failed. Right.
          clquake
          • 1 Year Ago
          @rmkensington
          You assume that all 20 bolts were used.
        sirjaysmith
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Jake S
        So the cross member failed then the engine somehow let go of the transmission which somehow put them in the ditch. There is not one thing right or accurate about your story.
        Roy
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Jake S
        I call B.S.
        Smilez1105
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Jake S
        Troll on!
        56Jalopy
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Jake S
        Your scenario is impossible. There is no way for a transmission to fall out of a perfectly running vehicle.
        engr00
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Jake S
        I am an engineer in the automotive industry. What your stating here is ridiculous. The transmission could not have deteached and fell from the vehicle. Sorry not a chance.
      DRAGON
      • 1 Year Ago
      NHTSA should ask Ford to recall all the Mustangs made in the 60s and 70s and update them to the 2025 safety standards...
        • 1 Year Ago
        @DRAGON
        [blocked]
        Chris
        • 1 Year Ago
        @DRAGON
        Shhhh!! Don't give them any more brilliantly dumb ideas.
    • Load More Comments
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