July 2, 2014 at 2:15 pm

U.S. orders Chrysler to answer questions on pace of Jeep recall

2004 Jeep Liberty. Last year, NHTSA formally asked Chrysler to recall 2.7 million 1992-98 Jeep Grand Cherokees and 2002-07 Jeep Libertys. (Chrysler)

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ordered Chrysler Group LLC in a letter Wednesday to answer questions about what it calls the slow pace of producing enough parts to complete a recall of 1.56 million older Jeep SUVs that are at risk for fuel tank fires.

NHTSA said it is concerned the automaker is not moving fast enough to build parts for its June 2013 recall.

Last year, NHTSA formally asked Chrysler to recall 2.7 million 1992-98 Jeep Grand Cherokees and 2002-07 Jeep Libertys, saying they were suspectible to gasoline fires resulting from ruptured gas tanks after severe rear-end crashes. The government blames such collisions for the deaths of at least 51 people driving Jeep SUVs.

Chrysler agreed to a more limited recall following talks in June 2013 between Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne. The automaker announced a fix — a trailer hitch assembly to help protect the gas tank, which is located between the rear axle and bumper. But Chrysler said it would not address all fire concerns.

NHTSA on Wednesday directed Chrysler to answer detailed questions and turn over documents that explain why the automaker didn’t select a hitch supplier until December, didn’t issue a purchase order until Jan. 29 and didn’t start building hitches until May 14. Last month, Chrysler told NHTSA it would produce about 2,000 hitches a day — and won’t launch the recall fix until Aug. 1.

Chrysler is notifying 1.5 million 1993-1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee and 1 million 2002-2007 Jeep Liberty owners who are part of the recall, though not all will get new hitches. NHTSA said it could take Chrysler “at least 4.7 years and 2.1 years respectively to produce the required number of Grand Cherokee and Liberty hitches at the current rate of production.”

Even if only half of owners take part, it would still take Chrysler more than two years to build enough parts.

“NHTSA is therefore concerned that Chrysler does not have, and will not have, sufficient production capacity to ensure that enough hitches will be available to ensure that the recalled vehicles will be remedied expeditiously,” NHTSA said in the letter, which seeks answers by July 16.

It is extremely unusual for an automaker to wait more than 13 months to launch a recall after announcing it.

Chrysler defended the pace of the recall in a statement.

“Launching a safety recall demands complex engineering and close coordination with NHTSA well before an auto maker accumulates replacement parts. To accommodate the high-volume production required for this campaign, Chrysler Group had to find and enlist multiple new supplier partners to supply volume of this part that far exceeded normal demand,” Chrysler said. “Our supplier partners are committed to a work schedule of three shifts per day, six days per week, with occasional Sunday production.”

Chrysler also noted NHTSA conducted eight crash tests and told Chrysler that “it did not have any reservations about implementation of Chrysler’s proposed remedy.”

Chrysler reiterated it does not believe the Jeeps are defective.

Chrysler has said the trailer hitch won’t eliminate the risk caused by high-speed rear collisions, but will provide some improvement in low- to moderate-speed rear collisions.

Dealers will install the hitches. Jeeps that already have factory-installed or Mopar hitches won’t need to get a new ones, but those with neither a hitch nor non-factory-installed hitches will get new ones.

NHTSA said at least 32 rear-impact fire crashes involving Grand Cherokees have resulted in 44 deaths, and at least five rear-impact crashes involving the Liberty have resulted in seven fatalities. Comparing rates of incidents with similar vehicles, NHTSA said the Grand Cherokee and Liberty “are poor performers.” Chrysler said that wasn’t true.

Chrysler noted that fires happen in all vehicles after crashes. “According to NHTSA’s own data, on average, more than 40 individuals each day are exposed to a post-crash fire, and approximately four of these individuals will not survive,” a Chrysler letter last June said. “While each of these cases is tragic, they would not have all been prevented by different struck vehicle designs.”

dshepardson@detroitnews.com