The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is considering opening an investigation into the 1993 to 2004 model-year Jeep Grand Cherokees' fuel tank following a complaint from a consumer advocacy group that claims more than 250 people died in fires caused by accidents involving the fuel tank.

"The fuel tank of the Grand Cherokee is plastic and extends below the rear bumper so there is nothing to protect the tank from a direct hit in a rollover or by a vehicle with a low front profile or one lowered by pre-impact braking," said the petition from the Center for Auto Safety, signed by Executive Director Clarence Ditlow.

While the agency claims that only one death and nine injuries related to fuel fires in accidents have been reported, the Center claims that NHTSA's files show that there were in fact 172 Grand Cherokee crashes involving fires that lead to 254 deaths between 1992 and 1998. The Center contends that the fuel tank is not adequately shielded from impact and that the fuel filler neck is also prone to tearing off in an accident and causing a fuel leak.

"Chrysler Group is confident that a study which considered all factors in all collisions -- including rear collisions with fire -- would show that the 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees perform as well as or better than other vehicles in their class," Chrysler said in a statement. "The 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee meets or exceeds all applicable federal safety standards and has an excellent safety record."

Adding ammunition to the Center's case is the fact that in 2005, under Daimler's ownership, the Grand Cherokee's fuel tank was relocated and shielded. According to the Center, there has been only one crash involving a fatal fire since then.

The Center, which was founded by consumer advocate and longtime auto safety crusader Ralph Nader, filed the petition back on October 2. If the NHTSA decides to open a full investigation, it could affect roughly 3 million Jeep Grand Cherokees built in the 11-year window. Even if an investigation is opened, though, it could take months or years for the NHTSA to tender a ruling and potentially open a recall.

Source: Automotive News (Subscription required)