Chrysler ramps up effort to fix recalled Jeep SUVs

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Chrysler Group LLC said Thursday it is ramping up efforts to get reluctant owners of 1.56 million recalled Jeeps repaired. The SUVs are at risk of gas tank fires in rear-end crashes.

The Auburn Hills unit of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV says since August, it has installed protective trailer hitches — intended to prevent the gas tank from rupturing if hit from behind — on nearly 88,000 1992-98 Grand Cherokees and 2002-07 Libertys. It has inspected another 31,000 of the vehicles that already had factory trailer hitches.

Chrysler announced the recall covered an estimated 1.56 million Jeeps in June 2013 out of an initial production of more than 2.4 million vehicles, citing the age of the vehicles. In an abundance of caution, Chrysler sent letters to 2.27 million owners, though it is not clear how many of the Jeeps are still on the road. Chrysler notes that the vehicles met safety requirements at the time the vehicles were built and insists they are not defective.

“We are initiating a second round of outreach via data mining to ensure we account for as many affected owners as possible,” Chrysler spokesman Eric Mayne said. “We are creating and promoting new websites dedicated to these campaigns; websites will feature campaign information, relevant instructions and live-chat capability to handle additional questions.”

The new website, not yet live, will allow owners to schedule service with any dealer online.

Chrysler says it has more than 427,000 trailer hitches in stock as of this week, and will have more than 550,000 by Dec. 1.

Jeeps that already have factory-installed or Mopar hitches won’t need to get new ones, but those without a hitch or with non-factory installed hitches will get new ones.

In addition, Chrysler agreed to conduct a customer service campaign for another 1.2 million 1999-2004 Grand Cherokees. Chrysler will replace non-factory-installed trailer hitches in order to make sure that sharp edges from aftermarket hitches don’t have the potential to puncture gas tanks. It will not, however, install hitches for those vehicles that don’t already have hitches.

Chrysler said in July it will be able to produce enough trailer hitches to complete the recall by mid-March 2015, far faster than the original timetable of up to 4.7 years.

NHTSA demanded this summer that Chrysler answer questions about the pace of producing the hitches to fix older Jeep SUVs at risk for fuel tank fires.

The highway safety agency said at least 32 rear-impact fire crashes involving the 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.