Detroit — The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it is upgrading and expanding its investigation into nearly 600,000 Chrysler SUVs over reports of fires in vehicle headlines.
NHTSA said it has upgraded its investigation into 593,000 2011-2013 Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango SUVs to an engineering analysis. NHTSA said there may be 52 unique fire incidents — including three injury allegations — on Grand Cherokee and Durango vehicles.
Chrysler said its "engineers are probing this concern while also fully supporting the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s investigation."
In August, NHTSA said it was opening a preliminary investigation into reports of three major fires in Jeep Grand Cherokee SUVs. The investigation initially covered 146,000 2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee SUVs. The expanded investigation now covers two more model years and a Durango version.
NHTSA said it has now identified five reports of vehicle headliners catching fire at the front of the vehicle near the sun visors on Jeep Grand Cherokees.
"Customers reported a range of fire conditions ranging from minor overheating to an open flame at the headliner and/or sun visor material while driving the vehicle,” NHTSA said. “In some reports, the fire spread to the front seats and/or door panels of the vehicle. In one report, the sunroof was damaged causing the glass to shatter. The cause of these fires is an electrical short in the vanity lighting wiring circuit that is routed to either one of the sun visors."
NHTSA said the sun visors are mounted to the roof of the vehicle with three screws.
"The sun visor wiring may be penetrated, or pierced by one of these screws either during initial vehicle assembly or subsequent headliner area repairs. The piercing causes an electrical short that could result in a fire. There is no dedicated fuse for the affected circuit so the electrical short can continue until the short clears or the vehicle is keyed off," NHTSA said. "The Dodge Durango uses the same headliner assembly, and Chrysler indicates there are similar headliner fire incidents affecting this model, therefore, these vehicles have been added to the scope of the investigation."
The upgrade is a necessary step before NHTSA could demand Chrysler recall the vehicles.
Separately, nearly seven months after Chrysler Group LLC announced a recall of 1.56 million Jeep SUVs under government pressure, the Auburn Hills automaker is preparing to fix the vehicles.
After negotiations that included talks between then-Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne, Chrysler agreed on June 18 to recall 1.56 million 1992-98 Grand Cherokees and 2002-07 Libertys.
Under the agreement, Chrysler will install protective trailer hitches. NHTSA says the gas tank can rupture and catch fire when the Jeeps are hit from behind. NHTSA cited reports of 51 deaths in rear-end accidents in which older Jeep gas tanks leaked and caught fire.
Chrysler officials say launching a major recall requires complex engineering and close collaboration with NHTSA. The automaker said last year the recall would cost $151 million.
More than seven months after NHTSA formally asked Chrysler to recall 2.7 million older Jeep SUVs for fire risks, the government’s investigation — opened in August 2010 — shows no signs of wrapping up.
Under the announcement in June, Chrysler will conduct a service campaign for about 1.2 million 1999-2004 Grand Cherokees that includes replacing aftermarket trailer hitches, but not installing them on vehicles without them. NHTSA had originally asked Chrysler to recall all 2.7 million Jeeps.