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Chrysler vows to speed Jeep recall fixes

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Chrysler Group LLC told federal regulators late Friday the company is not satisfied with the repair rates for recall of nearly 1.6 million SUVs for rear gas tank fire risks and will step up efforts to convince owners to get them fixed.

The Auburn Hills unit of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV told the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that it is taking steps to ensure that dealers are aware that the company has 430,000 trailer hitch assembly parts for dealers to use to repair vehicles — but just 50,000 of them are in dealer stock.

By Monday, all dealers will have at least 12 repair kits in stock, Chrysler said.

The automaker also said it has repaired and serviced 13.2 percent of 852,000 2002-2007 Jeep Liberty SUVs and 3.5 percent of 746,000 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee SUVs recalled in June 2013. The fix is to address the risk of gas tank fires, but repairs didn't start until August 2014.

On Thursday, David Friedman, the deputy chief of the NHTSA, said he sent an urgent letter to Chrysler Group CEO Sergio Marchionne, demanding the automaker improve its efforts to fix the Jeep SUVs at risk of gas tank fires in a rear-end collision. Marchionne told Friedman the company takes "seriously its commitment to motor vehicle safety."

Chrysler told NHTSA Friday it was not satisfied with the pace of repairs and vowed to take actions to improve the response rate. But it said it is difficult to convince some owners of older vehicles to get them fixed.

Chrysler safety chief Scott Kunselman also said the company estimated that 3 to 6 percent of recalled vehicles would be unable to have the trailer hitch installed. He said just 0.6 percent of vehicles serviced to date have been unable to have the recall completed because of accident damage, abuse or rust. Chrysler is studying NHTSA's concerns about the issue, Kunselman said.

Chrysler will buy ad time on Facebook in January and will launch a public service message starting Jab. 5 to tell owners to get recalled vehicles fixed. It will also launch enhanced online presence with the ability to answer questions in real time in Web chats about recalls.

NHTSA didn't respond to a request for comment late Friday.

Late Thursday, NHTSA issued a consumer advisory urging owners of the recalled Jeeps to get them fixed immediately.

Gas tanks on the older Jeeps are located below the rear bumper and behind the rear axle, and can rupture and leak gasoline if the SUVs are rear-ended. The fix that NHTSA called for involves installation of a trailer hitch to protect the gas tank.

However, the agency acknowledged Thursday that trailer hitches will not offer additional protection in high-speed crashes. It said its investigation found hitches provide incremental safety benefits in certain low- and moderate-speed crashes.

Chrysler has said since 2013 that the fix would not address high-speed crashes in which most of the reported deaths have occurred.

The highway safety agency says 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.

The letter from NHTSA came the week after a 23-year-old pregnant woman from Ferndale was killed in a fiery crash on the Lodge freeway in a recalled 2003 Jeep Liberty.

Kayla White was killed when her Jeep was struck from behind, causing it to overturn and catch fire. She died of burns and smoke inhalation, an autopsy found. It's not clear if the trailer hitch would have had an impact.