Chrysler continues to call the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's request for a recall of 2.7 million Jeep Grand Cherokees and Jeep Liberty SUVs flawed and wrong.
If something is broken, Chrysler will fix it, the company said in response to a letter from Frank Borris, director of the Office of Defects Investigation at NHTSA, but this time, nothing is broken.
"The subject vehicles are not defective and their fuel systems do not pose an unreasonable risk to motor vehicle safety in rear-impact collisions," the company said in a rebuttal to NHTSA.
Additionally, Chrysler's top executive, chairman, and CEO Sergio Marchionne said in a statement, "The safety of drivers and passengers has long been the first priority for Chrysler brands and that commitment remains steadfast. The company stands behind the quality of its vehicles. All of us remain committed to continue working with NHTSA to provide information confirming the safety of these vehicles."
The NHTSA sent Chrysler a 12-page letter Monday outlining its desire to see the company recall all of the 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees and 2002-2007 Jeep Liberty SUVs still on the road.
"This investigation revealed numerous fire-related deaths and injuries... in rear impacts," the letter stated. All told, NHTSA attributes design and performance defects in those vehicles to 51 deaths in fatal fire accidents.
Typically, when the federal agency asks a company to voluntarily recall vehicles, the automaker complies.
However, Chrysler points out that in an "exhaustive engineering analysis" of the accidents involving vehicles with the fuel tank located behind the rear axle there are 54 models more likely to result in a rear crash fire than the Grand Cherokee and 24 models more likely to have a rear crash fire than the Liberty. Additionally, the fuel systems exceeded all safety regulations and requirements.
In its response to the NHTSA, Chrysler says that NHTSA used faulty numbers and incorrect analysis of those numbers to conclude that the company should recall its vehicles.
The feds could hold hearings and take Chrysler to court demanding a recall, but nothing has been decided. The last time an automaker refused to "voluntarily" recall a vehicle was 1996 and the company was Chrysler, which eventually won the right not to recall vehicles due to an alleged seatbelt problem.
Chrysler also says that the accidents the government cites are too extreme and too rare.
"The focus of this request, occur less than once for every million years of vehicle operation," the company said.
"All but one fatal crash involving the subject Grand Cherokees, and all but four Jeep Liberty incidents involved high-energy crashes. One highly publicized crash cited by NHTSA involved a tractor-trailer traveling 65 mph and a stationary Grand Cherokee," Chrysler said. "Crash energy was estimated at more than 23 times the required performance threshold."
In 78 percent of Grand Cherokee incidents, the crash energy exceeded today's rear impact fuel system standards, which doubled in 2008, the automaker stated.
The company may have a point, and it may even be right, but it could be damaging its reputation regardless.
Already the Center for Auto Safety, the group leading the recall charge against Chrysler, says the company has put profits ahead of people. It estimates that Chrysler could address possible fuel tank issues with a few new parts, a piece of steel and $300 million.
"The refusal to recall these rolling firebombs is an insult to its customers who ride at risk every day of being hit from behind and going up in flames and to American tax payers who bailed out Chrysler," the group said in a statement.
That may be a little extreme, as Chrysler has often instituted recalls before the government has even asked and before anyone was hurt. That's certainly a people over profits approach.
However, that may not matter, facts are rarely as important as what people think.
"With any brand, and in this case with Chrysler, it's really about perception more than facts," said Brian Moody, Autotrader.com editor. "If the buying public perceives that Chrysler is being insensitive, that could be harmful to Chrysler, even if the facts support Chrysler's position."
In other words, Chrysler is stuck right between a rear axle and the bumper and the 65 mph semi of public opinion is barreling down.