July 16, 2014 at 9:30 pm

Chrysler to speed up fixes for Jeep SUV

Automaker under pressure on recall due to fire risk

Washington — Under government pressure, Chrysler Group LLC on Wednesday said it will be able to produce enough trailer hitches to complete a June 2013 recall of 1.56 million Jeep SUVs by mid-March — far faster than the original timetable of up to 4.7 years.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration demanded earlier this month Chrysler answer questions about what the pace of producing parts to fix older Jeep SUVs at risk for fuel tank fires. The parts are designed to protect gas tanks behind the rear axle in rear-end collisions.

NHTSA said in a July 2 letter to the Auburn Hills unit of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV that 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.”

In a 10-page response Wednesday to NHTSA, Chrysler said it “undertook a review of the capabilities of its hitch supplier, Northern Stamping Inc, and other competitors to see if it could speed up production” and found a way to do so.

The new cells will allow NSI to double production rates in about five months. But Chrysler said if all owners sought repairs it would take until March 2016.

When vehicle attrition is taken into account and recall participation rates of older vehicles, Chrysler estimates 268,772 Jeep Grand Cherokee and 579,455 Jeep Liberty hitch assemblies will be installed — about 50 percent of Grand Cherokees and 80 percent of Liberty SUVs.

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 fires 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.

In June 2013, Chrysler agreed to a more limited recall following talks. The automaker announced a fix — a trailer hitch assembly to help protect the gas tank, which is between the rear axle and bumper. But Chrysler said it would not address all fire concerns. Chrysler reiterated in its letter to NHTSA that it expects the recall will cost $151 million.

Chrysler is notifying 1.5 million 1993-98 Jeep Grand Cherokee and one million 2002-07 Jeep Liberty owners, though not all will get new hitches.

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 disputed that.

dshepardson@detroitnews.com