Chrysler Group is taking the very rare step of defying the government by refusing to recall 2.7 million Jeeps that federal safety officials say are dangerous and should be recalled.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration sent the automaker a letter late Monday asking it to recall the 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee and the 2002-2007 Jeep Liberty. NHTSA says the rear-mounted gas tanks in those vehicles are too vulnerable to leaking and catching fire in a rear-end crash.
Chrysler said Tuesday it "disagrees with NHTSA's recall request," and won't honor it.
Government data show 44 deaths in 32 rear-end crashes and fires involving the Grand Cherokees that it wants recalled, and seven deaths in five Liberty rear-impact/fire crashes.
The infamous Ford Pinto and Mercury Bobcat gas tank fires in the 1970s involved 27 deaths in 38 rear-end impacts. Ford Motor recalled those in 1978.
Adjusted for the number of Jeeps on the road, the Grand Cherokees had a rear-crash fire death rate of just 1 per million registered vehicle years; the Liberty, 0.9
NHTSA says similar SUVs sold by other companies had rates of around 0.5, so the Jeeps "are poor performers." Chrysler says the numbers, and the differences among them, are so tiny that they are statistically meaningless.
The unusual public argument is the latest step in a Jeep probe that NHTSA began in August 2010, after a 2009 request by the Center for Auto Safety, an advocacy group.
"NHTSA hopes that Chrysler will reconsider its position and take action to protect its customers and the driving public," NHTSA administrator David Stickland said in a statement late Tuesday.
Chrysler said NHTSA's analysis is faulty. It didn't use all the available data, and it made some incorrect comparisons, the automaker said.
The government and the automaker now will exchange more information. NHTSA eventually could take Chrysler to court in an attempt to force a recall.
"Chrysler must feel like it has a compelling reason to take such a bold stand. Since Toyota was publicly humiliated for dragging its feet on recalls just a few years ago, automakers have been quick to recall vehicles at NHTSA's request," says Michelle Krebs, an auto industry analyst at researcher Edmunds.com.
"It's extraordinary for a manufacturer to refuse a recall request from NHTSA," says Allan Kam, a former NHTSA senior enforcement attorney. He foresees the automaker having to endure "a crescendo of adverse publicity" in "what will probably be a losing battle."
In what Chrysler called a "white paper" criticizing key points of the NHTSA investigation, the car company said: "After an exhaustive engineering analysis, Chrysler Group has found no evidence that the fuel systems in the subject vehicles are defective in either their design or manufacture. ... The 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee and 2002-2007 Jeep Liberty are among the safest vehicles of their era."
Chrysler notes that the Jeep models were popular and their high numbers on the road would naturally lead to more incidents.
NHTSA did not identify a remedy for the tank positioning. It normally doesn't press for a recall unless the automaker has a remedy for the alleged problem.
In fact, there might be no real "fix" for a rear-mounted fuel tank. Relocating it under the vehicle would involve re-engineering the tank and the underbody of the vehicle. Or using a different rear tank that somehow could be tucked in differently. But testing to see if a change actually improved a rate as low as one deadly incident per million registered vehicle years could be impossible.
Chrysler presumably could make the problem go away by buying back the 2.7 million vehicles. Probably unaffordable. Most are new enough to be worth at least several thousand dollars. Even if an average buy-back price were as low as $1,000, that's still $2.7 billion, and that's more than the $1.7 billion Chrysler earned all of last year.
Most newer vehicles, including Jeeps, now have tanks mounted ahead of the rear axle, suggesting that has become the acknowledged standard.
The automaker noted that the Jeeps more than met the safety regulations of the time, and said, "NHTSA seems to be holding Chrysler Group to a new standard for fuel tank integrity that does not exist now, and did not exist when the Jeep vehicles were manufactured."
The last time Chrysler refused a NHTSA recall request was 1998, involving 1995 Dodge Stratus and Chrysler Cirrus mid-size sedans that NHTSA said had a fault with safety restraints. The agency did not force the recall.
General Motors in the 1990s refused to recall some 4 million of 1973 to 1987 pickups still on the road that were built with so-called sidesaddle gas tanks. The government and other critics said the tanks, situated outside the trucks' frame rails, were too vulnerable to damage in a side crash.
GM lost a $105 million lawsuit involving a death blamed on the tanks, but that was overturned on appeal and the government didn't sue to enforce a recall. GM offered $1,000 discount coupons to owners of the trucks who bought new GM pickups or vans.
The gasoline shortages in the U.S. in the 1970s and 1980s made the extra fuel capacity of the sidesaddle tanks a strong selling point, and GM sold some 9 million of the pickups before a redesign in 1988. Among other changes, that redesign relocated the tanks to a central spot, between the frame rails.
Gas tanks originally were moved to the vehicles' extremities because they'd been located near the occupants -- sitting totally exposed directly behind the passenger compartment in cars of the early 1900s.
But ever since the high-profile Pinto recall in 1978, NNHTSA said in its Monday recall letter to Chrysler, automakers have been moving to "designs in which fuel tanks were located in less vulnerable locations than behind the rear axle." The agency cited a 1978 Chrysler internal memo discussing the location of fuel tanks under the rear seat in its new Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizon compacts, and the soon-to-be launched Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant K-cars.
The memo said: "This location provides the protection of all the structure behind the rear wheels -- as well as the rear wheels themselves -- to protect the tank from being damaged in a collision."
NHTSA's telling a company to perform a recall is nearly as remarkable as Chrysler's "no."
Almost always, the company and the government work out an agreement that lets the automaker announce a "voluntary recall" to fix an alleged safety problem. NHTSA's view has been that getting supposedly unsafe vehicles fixed is more important than who gets credit -- though the agency isn't shy about taking credit for the recalls later.
Automakers don't like to be seen as arguing in favor of potentially unsafe vehicles. And they know that federal regulators could make life difficult for companies that don't cooperate, perhaps by extraordinary scrutiny of other interactions between the automaker and the government. That would soak up more time and energy and, often, run up legal fees that an automaker prefers to avoid.