A potential showdown between the Detroit automaker and the NHTSA was narrowly averted Tuesday, hours before a deadline for Chrysler to either accept or reject the recall of 2.7 million older-model Jeeps the government was seeking.
After an investigation by the NHTSA, the agency said the Grand Cherokee and Liberty models were at risk of catching fire in rear-end collisions, a problem the government linked to at least 51 reported deaths.
After initially saying it was not going to recall the vehicles and insisting there was no defect, Chrysler reversed course Tuesday afternoon and announced a settlement. Initial reports said the maker would recall the 2.7 million SUVs, including Grand Cherokees sold between 1993 and 2004, and Liberty models marketed between 2002 and 2007.
Only 1.56 million of those vehicles are actually subject to a safety recall, however; all the Liberty SUVs and Grand Cherokees sold during the 1993 through 1998 model years.
The remaining Jeep utility vehicles, Grand Cherokees marketed from 1999 to 2004, are covered by a much less extensive "service action," according to Chrysler, which is owned by Italian automaker Fiat.
The difference is significant. The recall will involve installation of a protective shield meant to reduce the likelihood that in the event of a rear-end collision gas tanks mounted behind the rear axles of the two Jeep models might leak and catch fire.
A large portion of the roughly 1.2 million vehicles subject to the service action, however, will undergo no modifications. The only modifications would occur if one of those Jeep Grand Cherokees was equipped with an aftermarket trailer hitch, something that appears to increase the risk of a gas tank being damaged in a collision.
In such an instance, Chrysler officials explained, the hitch would be replaced by a factory trailer hitch designed to minimize the risk of a fire.
NHTSA officials have not yet responded to questions about the decision to limit the vehicles they targeted for recall.