Chrysler and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration faced off in June.
2003 Jeep Liberty Renegade
Under pressure from an automotive safety group, NHTSA sent a letter to Chrysler asking it to recall 2.7 million Jeep Grand Cherokees and Jeep Liberty SUVs.
Typically, these requests are quickly met. Often, an automaker will issue a recall even before NHTSA has requested one. Furthermore, consumers tend to appreciate a automaker righting a wrong and think better of the company.
So following up and recalling the Jeeps should have been a matter of form more than anything else. Fix it, and move on.
2003 Jeep Liberty Sport
But this time, Chrysler said "no." A voluntary recall requires a volunteer.
Please cue the lawyers' feigned outrage.
The alleged problem stemmed from the fuel tank and its location on 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees and 2002-2007 Jeep Liberties. The tank was mounted behind the rear axle and the safety group said at least 51 people died when the vehicle was struck from behind and the Jeeps burst into flames.
NHTSA said that Jeeps it had once approved in rear crash tests were no longer safe. Jeep took issue with that statement.
Citing a comprehensive analysis of 5 million vehicles, Chrysler said its Jeeps were in fact safer than other SUVs during the same time. Its study covered 30 years and more than 500 billion miles driven. (Mars in only 34 million miles away.)
So when NHTSA sent an emotionally charged letter talking about children burning up in SUVs, Chrysler responded with detailed facts. It noted that the majority of the accidents cited involved forces above today's rear crash standards, which are double the standard Jeeps were tested for in 1993.
In one incident, a stopped Jeep Grand Cherokee was struck from behind by a semi truck going 65 mph.
While Chrysler said no to NHTSA, it also managed to keep its humanity and respect for the people who did lose their lives over the past 20 years in Jeep Grand Cherokees. The stand wasn't against safety, it was against fast and loose numbers. Moreover, it was against the idea that a product that met all applicable safety standards when it was built could be held to newer, higher standards 20 years later.
"If something is broke, we're going to fix it," one Chrysler official told me.
NHTSA gave Chrysler until June 18 to "volunteer" or else face possible legal action.
Ultimately, NHTSA and Chrysler agreed to a compromise. Jeep recalled 1.6 million vehicles and volunteered to inspect others. It also managed to avoid having NHTSA label any problems as a formal defect, meaning it would save face in front of the more litigious crowd.
The compromise? Jeep installed free Mopar trailer hitches on any Grand Cherokee or Liberty that didn't already have one, which effectively installs a brace to protect the gas tank during a rear end collision. Off-the-shelf parts mean a quick and relatively cheap fix for Chrysler, better rear-end crash protection for the owner, and the satisfaction of the letter of the law.
Cue the lawyers' for more feigned outrage.