U.S. opens probe into 50,000 2015 Jeep Cherokee SUVs

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Friday it is opening an investigation into 50,000 2015 Jeep Cherokee SUVs for fire risks after a high-profile fire in a San Diego-area vehicle.

The auto safety agency said it received a report of a severe engine compartment fire incident resulting in the total loss a new Jeep Cherokee. The report said the "vehicle was engulfed in flames approximately 20 feet high within seconds of parking the vehicle. The complaint alleged white smoke coming from under the hood immediately after parking the vehicle and while the ignition is off."

NHTSA said it has also "identified field report data submitted as part of Early Warning Reporting that relate to the alleged defect."

The 2015 Jeep Cherokee

The preliminary investigation is the latest example of NHTSA's much more aggressive posture — with the government opening a formal investigation the same day it formally received the complaint.

The complaint said the vehicle was purchased on Jan. 2 from Perry Chrysler Jeep in National City, Calif., and had been driven less than 100 miles on Jan. 4 when the driver noticed an oil smell. The complaint also said either burning oil or fuel ran down the street over 50 yards — and said two San Diego TV stations posted videos of the fire (watch here and here). No one was hurt in the incident.

Videos posted by the TV stations showed a charred vehicle on a California street with some melted belongings.

"I was actually very afraid for my life," owner Margareta Knoos told CBS station KFMB-TV. Knoos said she had only driven it twice — including once to a park with her newborn nephew. Family members tried to help put the fire out.

Chrysler spokesman Eric Mayne said it is reviewing the incident.

"We are aware of this incident and our investigators are cooperating fully with NHTSA's preliminary evaluation," Mayne said.

A separate complaint filed on Jan. 5 said an owner of a 2015 Jeep Cherokee, while driving at 60 miles per hour, noticed smoke under the hood. The SUV only had 45 miles on it.

NHTSA has previously been in a long-running battle with Chrysler over older Jeep SUVs for fire risks with a different design.

In November, NHTSA's deputy chief said he sent an urgent letter to Chrysler Group CEO Sergio Marchionne, demanding the automaker improve its efforts to fix 1.56 million Jeep SUVs at risk of gas tank fires in a rear-end collision.

Chrysler recalled an estimated 1.56 million 2002-07 Jeep Libertys and 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees for the problem in June 2013, and agreed to install trailer hitches to protect the gas tanks. But it didn't start fixing them until August.

"They've got to get their act in gear," NHTSA's David Friedman told reporters in November. "They've got to make sure that they are getting those parts in the hands of consumers. They've told us that they have nearly 400,000 parts, and yet we're getting complaints from consumers saying the dealers are telling them there aren't any parts."

It's the latest battle between Chrysler and NHTSA over the pace of recall fixes.

Earlier in November, 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 the hitches will not offer much additional protection in high-speed crashes. Its investigation did find they 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 reported deaths have occurred.

NHTSA 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.

Michigan State Police said they were nearing completion of its investigation of White's death.

In November, Chrysler vowed to step up efforts to convince Jeep owners to get them fixed. Chrysler mailed out 2 million letters in August and September to owners advising them of the recall. Chrysler plans to buy ad time on Facebook this month and is working to launch a video featuring a company vice president to remind owners to get recalled vehicles fixed.

The automaker has maintained all along that the Jeeps are not defective.

Chrysler said that as of last week, the company's more than 2,500 dealers had 58,600 repair kits on dealer shelves and more than 313,000 kits in regional warehouses. To date, about 10 percent of the vehicles have had the recalls completed. About 144,500 vehicles have been repaired, 47,800 inspected that didn't need repairs and 1,157 that were too rusted or damaged to be repaired.

The company also agreed to conduct a customer service campaign for another 1.2 million 1999-2004 Grand Cherokees. Chrysler will replace non-factory-installed trailer hitches to make sure aftermarket hitches don't have potential to puncture gas tanks. It will not, however, install hitches for vehicles that don't already have them.

NHTSA has been clashing with Chrysler over a number of safety issues. In October, it launched an investigation into Chrysler's recall of nearly 1 million Dodge Ram trucks for steering issues, prompted by more than 1,000 complaints from owners seeking faster repairs. And NHTSA said in November it was unacceptable that Chrysler wasn't starting until December its repair of 371,000 vehicles for potentially defective Takata air bags that were recalled in June.