U.S. probes 630K Jeep Wrangler SUVs for air bag issue

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Tuesday it is opening an investigation into 630,000 Jeep Wrangler SUVs for an electrical problem that may cause air bags not to work properly.

The investigation of 2007-12 models follows Fiat Chrysler’s recall of about 10,000 right-hand driver Jeep Wrangler SUVs built 2008-12 after a government investigation was launched in 2011. The company also issued extended warranty coverage for the 2007 right-hand drive models. Right-hand drive Jeep Wranglers have been used on some rural U.S. Postal routes.

NHTSA says it has 221 complaints of problems related to the 630,000 left-hand driver Wranglers under investigation, but didn’t report any crashes or injuries. NHTSA says the vehicles may have an electrical problem — the clockspring wiring in the driver side air bag circuit may fail.

Some owners say they have had to replace the clockspring on multiple occasions — an issue that may be related to exposure to dust in rural areas. That could prevent the air bag from deploying in a crash.

This is the second new NHTSA investigation into Fiat Chrysler in two days. On Monday, the agency said it is opening an investigation into 121,000 2013 Dodge Darts after the agency received 18 complaints that the brake pedal can suddenly become hard to depress and that braking distance unexpectedly increased on 2013 Darts.

Some drivers report hearing a “pop noise or an air hissing noise when applying the brake pedal, followed by a hard pedal feel and reduced brake effectiveness.” Others said they had to use the parking brake to stop; other owners said the brake booster and master cylinder were replaced to correct the problem.

There are no reports of crashes or injuries.

Fiat Chrysler spokesman Eric Mayne said the automaker is “fully cooperating.”

NHTSA has opened other recent investigations into Fiat Chrysler.

On Tuesday, Fiat Chrysler’s top U.S. safety official, Scott Kunselman — who is senior vice president for vehicle safety and regulatory compliance at FCA US LLC — is among those set to testify at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on air bag recalls.

Last week, NHTSA said it is expanding the number of Fiat Chrysler recalls it will review at a July 2 public hearing to 22 campaigns — and found widespread evidence the automaker has failed to meet legal requirements to fix defects, make replacement parts available and notify owners and regulators in a timely fashion.

In May, NHTSA said it was calling the automaker in for the unprecedented hearing to address questions about recall campaigns covering 11 million vehicles since 2013. In a notice Thursday, NHTSA said it is adding two additional recalls from 2014 covering another 1 million vehicles to its review.

Earlier this month, Fiat Chrysler said it will address all of the agency’s concerns and said it was taking steps to move faster and boost recall completion rates. The automaker’s total submission was more than 5 million pages, the company said.

NHTSA said the automaker has repeatedly failed to abide by requirements to have replacement parts, notify owners and NHTSA.

The agency could fine Fiat Chrysler up to $35 million for each of the recall campaigns if it determines it failed to meet legal requirements — or could order the automaker “to take specified action to meet those requirements, including by ordering the manufacturer to refund the purchase price of the defective or noncomplying vehicles, less a reasonable allowance for depreciation.”