Is the Pre-2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee the New Ford Pinto?

The new Grand Cherokee is a champ, but the old one is the center of a safety probe over gas tank fires

The Center for Auto Safety, an advocacy group, is calling for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to recall up to 2.2 million Jeep Grand Cherokees sold between 1993 through 2004 because of what it claims is a gas tank design that makes the SUV much more prone to lethal fires in rear-end collisions.

The call for recall does not include Grand Cherokees made after 2004 because of a redesign that addressed the gas-tank issue. Specifically, when the popular SUV was overhauled, the gas tank was moved from the position between the rear axle and the rear bumper to a spot in front of the rear axle and shielded it.

From an engineering standpoint, all modern cars and SUVs place the gas tank in front of the rear axle. In the event of a rear collision, the heavy steel axle serves as an important buffer to keep the gas tank from rupturing and potentially causing a fire. In many accidents involving a ruptured gas tank pieces of metal drag on pavement as the vehicle is pushed across the road, causing sparks, which tend to ignite leaking gasoline.

"For the Center for Auto Safety, this is the most dangerous vehicle on the road today and we want it recalled," said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the advocacy organization.

The Center says that at least 55 people have died in crashes where fire was "the most harmful factor."

The National Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA), which is investigating the vehicle's safety, declined to comment on the Center's crash test.

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Chrysler disputes the Center for Auto Safety's test results. The company claims the Center's test was "three times as severe" as the government standard, and that the old Grand Cherokee design meets or exceeds federal standards. A company spokesman added that rear impacts resulting in a fire are rare, and do not occur at a greater rate than they do for other SUVs.

It is not the first time the Center for Auto Safety has gone after car companies over models with similar gas tank designs. In the 1970s, the Center investigated the Ford Pinto for the same design. And more recently, the group went after the Ford Crown Victoria, which for many years has been the vehicle of choice for police departments and taxi fleets.

There have been numerous lawsuits over all three of these vehicles.

Jeep is a brand of Chrysler LLC, which also markets Chrysler and Dodge brand vehicles. At the time the vehicles were made, the company was independently owned, or part of the DaimlerChrysler Corp. Chrysler's German owner redesigned the Grand Cherokee to move the gas tank to the preferred location in the vehicle, a move the Center for Auto Safety says shows that engineers knew it was a problem that needed correcting.

Legally, however, a company does not admit that a previous design was flawed just because it makes changes or improvements. If that were the case, companies would never change their designs.

Today, Chrysler is controlled by Italian auto company Fiat, which is in process of buying out the U.S. government stake in the automaker that occurred in 2009 when the U.S. Treasury helped keep Chrysler afloat with loans and an equity position. Chrysler went through bankruptcy reorganization in 2009.

Fiat-controlled Chrysler is liable today for damages awarded by courts involving accidents with vehicles that were built on or before June 10, 2009, when the ownership transfer took place.

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