July 22, 2014 at 10:56 pm

Chrysler recalls 800,000 SUVs for ignition problems

2006 Jeep Commander (DaimlerChrysler / Wieck)

Washington— Chrysler Group LLC is recalling nearly 800,000 older Jeep SUVs for ignition switch problems, and is urging owners to only use the ignition key as the automaker works to find a fix.

The company said the recall covers some 2006-07 Jeep Commander and 2005-07 Jeep Grand Cherokee SUVs, and said its engineers are seeking a remedy. “Chrysler is committing now to conduct a recall out of an abundance of caution,” the company said.

Chrysler advised owners to make sure there is enough clearance between their knees and the keys so that the key doesn’t get bumped and accidentally turn off the engine. As a further precaution, owners are advised to remove all items from their key rings, leaving only the ignition key.

The problem is similar to the issue that has rocked cross-town rival General Motors Co. after it failed to promptly recall 2.6 million cars linked to at least 13 deaths when air bags failed to deploy after vehicles stalled. GM has recalled more than 12 million other vehicles for other ignition problems.

Chrysler said it is unaware of any related injuries. The automaker reported it knows of one accident and at least 32 complaints involving less than a tiny fraction of the recalled vehicles — 0.015 percent.

Chrysler has now recalled about 1.7 million vehicles for ignition switch problems since 2011. But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration still is investigating whether Chrysler’s fix is adequate in most of the recalled vehicles.

In June, NHTSA announced it was opening investigations into 1.2 million Chrysler vehicles because of reports that a driver’s knee can move the ignition switch out of the “run” position, causing the vehicles to stall and disabling the air bags. That included 525,000 2006-07 Jeep Commanders and 2005-06 Jeep Grand Cherokees in the United States after 32 complaints allege the driver’s knee can contact the key fob or key chain and cause the ignition to be turned off.

The Auburn Hills unit of Fiat Chrysler SpA said its preliminary investigation suggests an outside force, usually attributed to contact with the driver’s knee, may move ignition keys from the “on” position. Chrysler said the problem may cause the engine to stall, reducing braking power and making steering more difficult. Safety features such as front air bags may also be disabled.

Chrysler said it will alert owners by mid-September when they may schedule service.

Chrysler said the recall will cover 649,900 vehicles in the U.S.; 28,800 in Canada; 12,800 in Mexico and 100,800 outside of the NAFTA region. The Commander is no longer in production and the Grand Cherokee has since been completely redesigned; newer models are not subject to the recall.

In an interview last week, acting NHTSA Administrator David Friedman said the agency is looking more broadly at the issue of whether other automakers have ignition issues.

“This whole GM Cobalt recall brought to light a whole set of new information about interactions between ignition switches and air bags. We quickly jumped on that new information ... We’re still in that process.”

Despite the new recalls Chrysler is still behind last year’s pace. Chrysler has recalled more than 2.8 million vehicles in 20 campaigns this year compared with 3.5 million in 31 campaigns in the same period last year.

Last month, Chrysler said it would recall nearly 696,000 minivans and SUVs worldwide under government pressure because ignition keys could rotate out of the “on” position, potentially causing stalling and the air bag not to deploy in a front-end crash.

Last month, Chrysler said it will expand a 2011 recall to cover the 2009 Dodge Journey and 2008-09 Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town and Country “for inadvertent ignition key rotation from the run position to the accessory position.”

Chrysler said it had about 30 customer complaints and 465 warranty claims alleging inadvertent engine shut-off while driving — and reports of two rear-end collisions arising from the condition. There are no reports of deaths or injuries from air bags failing to deploy in crashes linked to the defect.

Chrysler disclosed that on June 17, NHTSA asked the automaker in a phone call to recall the 2008-09 vehicles. But the automaker is standing by its recall remedy — adding a detent ring to the switch to make it stiffer, instead of replacing the entire part — even though NHTSA has concerns it may not work.

The Commander and Grand Cherokee have a different ignition switch — an instrument panel mounted switch — compared to column ignition switches in the minivans.

Separately Tuesday, Chrysler Group said it will recall an estimated 21,000 vehicles to inspect and, if necessary, replace the shocks or struts. Chrysler said some vehicles may have been assembled using a shipment of shocks and struts that do not meet Chrysler standards.

That recall covers some 2014 Ram 1500 pickups, 2015 Jeep Cherokee SUVs and 2015 Chrysler 200 sedans assembled within a 16-day period ending June 6 of 2014. An estimated 14,300 vehicles are in the U.S.; 5,300 in Canada; 160 in Mexico and 2,000 outside North America.

dshepardson@detroitnews.com