Chrysler Finally Cleared For Curious Fix Of 2002-2007 Jeep Liberty, 1993-1998 Grand Cherokee

January 20

If you own a 2002-2007 Jeep Liberty or a 1993-1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee, you may have been driving on pins and needles for the past few months, waiting for a recall notice to appear in your mailbox.

Thankfully, the wait is almost over: according to the New York Times, Chrysler's unusual fix for those vehicles has finally been green-lighted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, meaning that the official recall should begin in the near future.

A RECAP

The long, strange story of the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Jeep Liberty recall began back in 2009, when the watchdog group known as the Center for Auto Safety asked NHTSA to investigate Jeep models for fires resulting from rear-end collisions. The fires seemed linked to the vehicles' gas tank, which is positioned just behind the rear axle, making it more vulnerable to rupture during accidents.

Two years later, NHTSA had attributed over 50 deaths to such fires, but CAS says that figure is far too conservative and that the real number is closer to 160. Regardless, the agency asked Chrysler to conduct a recall, stating that the "[Office of Defects Investigation] believes that the MY 1993-2004 Grand Cherokee and MY 2002-2007 Liberty contain defects related to motor vehicle safety. Accordingly, ODI requests that Chrysler initiate a safety recall of these vehicles."

Chrysler's unusual answer? No. Or, more specifically, "The company does not agree with NHTSA’s conclusions and does not intend to recall the vehicles cited in the investigation."

And that's when the crap hit the fan belt. The story of Chrysler's refusal to carry out a federally recommended safety recall made headlines across the country, and Jeep's reputation suffered. In America, consumers tended to think kindly of Jeep, but after this news, shoppers saw Jeep in a decidedly negative light.

Not surprisingly, Chrysler soon changed its mind. The company issued a statement saying that it had reached a compromise with NHTSA and would soon begin inspecting the 2002-2007 Liberty and 1993-1998 Grand Cherokee for problems. Chrysler would, "if necessary, provide an upgrade to the rear structure of the vehicle to better manage crash forces in low-speed impacts."  

AN IFFY FIX?

That was six months ago, in June of 2013. Typically, when NHTSA uncovers a fatal flaw like this, automakers put recalls on the fast track, sending out notices in a matter of weeks, if not days. What's the holdup?

In this case, it's the unusual nature of Chrysler's proposed fix. To shield the gas tank on the Liberty and Grand Cherokee and minimize the effect of rear-end collisions, the company has proposed installing trailer hitches on the affected vehicles. 

No one believes that's a perfect solution. A former Chrysler engineer has said that tow hitches don't really protect the gas tank. And in its proposal to NHTSA (PDF), Chrysler says that while a trailer hitch can offer "incremental improvement" in the case of low- and moderate-speed crashes, it "cannot, and will not, mitigate the risk" associated with high-speed collisions.

Least satisfied of all is Clarence Ditlow at the Center for Auto Safety, who says, "It is tragic that NHTSA approved Chrysler’s sham trailer hitch recall for Jeeps that explode in rear impacts. NHTSA Administrator David Strickland will be remembered as the Administrator who took a job with one of Chrysler’s lawfirms [sic] rather than save more children like Cassidy Jarmon from burning to deaths [sic] in Jeeps with trailer hitches."

NHTSA, however, says that it has "no reservations" about Chrysler's proposed fix. Hopefully, an explanation for NHTSA's attitude will be revealed when the agency issues its closing report on the investigation within the next few weeks.

On a practical note, Chrysler hasn't yet issued a formal recall notice, so we don't know when the company will begin inspecting and repairing vehicles. However, given the way that this recall has dragged on, we'd expect it to be fast-tracked, now that the fix has been approved by NHTSA.

OUR TAKE

Until we review NHTSA's final report, we won't be able to assess why the agency thinks that such an unusual use of trailer hitches is an appropriate fix for this very serious structural problem. For now, we can only give NHTSA the benefit of the doubt, assume that it has been thorough in its investigation, and that it has worked through a wide range of possible solutions. 

That said, we understand that this is a complicated problem and far more difficult to resolve than most. After all, short of moving the gas tank entirely, there aren't many foolproof solutions. In the end, we hope that Chrysler understands that this imperfect fix will leave many owners feeling nervous and unsafe in their vehicles.

Our suggestion? While shifting the location of the gas tank is impossible, perhaps Chrysler could offer owners an added bonus if they were to trade in one of the affected vehicles for a new Jeep model. That would serve the double purpose of (a) making Jeep look like a good guy and (b) putting more people behind the wheels of newer, safer Jeep models.

Just a thought. 

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