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Jeep recall: Chrysler refuses, then caves to feds' call for inspecting 2.7 million Jeeps

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Carlos Osorio/AP/File

(Read caption) Rows of 2001 Jeep Grand Cherokees are lined up outside the Jefferson North Assembly Plant in Detroit in 2001. Chrysler announced Tuesday, June 18, 2013 that it will issue a Jeep recall of older Grand Cherokee and Liberty SUVs that could be at risk of a fuel tank fire. In early June 2013, the company refused the NHTSA's request to recall the Jeeps.

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After initially refusing, Chrysler has agreed to comply with a formal government request to recall 2.7 million model Jeeps. According to regulators, the Jeep recall will include Cherokee and Liberty models that can catch fire due to the position of the gas tank behind the rear axle.

The problem has already been responsible for 51 deaths resulting from Jeeps igniting after rear-end collisions, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The recall involves Jeep Grand Cherokees made between 1993 and 2004, as well as Jeep Libertys manufactured between 2004 and 2007. The affected vehicles will be inspected and, if necessary, have a trailer hitch installed to protect the gas tank. Chrysler didn’t say how much the hitches would cost the company.

“As a result of the agreement, Chrysler Group will conduct a campaign with respect to the vehicles in question that, in addition to a visual inspection of the vehicle will, if necessary, provide an upgrade to the rear structure of the vehicle to better manage crash forces in low-speed impacts,” Chrysler said in a statement.

Chrysler’s pushback to the NHTSA’s request was unusual, to say the least. Vehicle recalls are requested and complied with constantly, often for problems far more minor than exploding gas tanks. More often than not, an automaker will issue a recall before it’s formally requested.

The NHTSA sent a formal letter to Chrysler outlining the concerns leading to  the recall earlier this month, saying that  it believed that “the MY [model year] 1993-2004 Grand Cherokee and MY 2002-2007 Liberty contain defects related to motor vehicle safety,” and requesting that “Chrysler initiate a safety recall of these vehicles.”

But Chrysler, while not refusing the government’s claims, maintained that its own internal data showed no signs of undue risk. “The company does not agree with NHTSA’s conclusions and does not intend to recall the vehicles cited in the investigation,” Chrysler’s official response read.

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Chrysler was widely expected to formally refuse the recall request Tuesday afternoon, Instead, it reversed course and complied, but was still maintaining previous assertions that the vehicles are safe.

“Chrysler Group’s analysis of the data confirms that these vehicles are not defective and are among the safest in the peer group,” a company statement read. “Nonetheless, Chrysler Group recognizes that this matter has raised concerns for its customers and wants to take further steps, in coordination with NHTSA, to provide additional measures to supplement the safety of its vehicles.”

Had Chrysler refused, the NHTSA could call for court hearings and additional investigations, and eventually ask the Justice Department to sue Chrysler to force a recall. Vehicles can’t be recalled more than 10 years after the model’s first sale. The last time an automaker refused a recall was Ford in early 2011.

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