Detroit • Facing a deadline and a potential public-relations nightmare, Chrysler on Tuesday resolved differences with safety regulators and will recall 2.7 million older-model Jeeps, reversing a defiant stance over autos that may be linked to 51 deaths in fiery rear-end collisions.
In deciding on the recall, Chrysler sidestepped a showdown with the federal government that could have led to public hearings with witnesses providing details on fuel tanks at risk of a fire when they rupture. The dispute ultimately could have landed in court and hurt Chrysler's image and its finances.
The company said calls from customers concerned about the safety of their Jeeps played a part in acceding to the government's request.
Earlier this month, the automaker publicly refused the government's initial request to recall Jeep Grand Cherokees from model years 1993 through 2004 and Jeep Libertys from 2002 through 2007.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the agency that monitors vehicle safety, contends that the Jeep gas tanks can rupture if hit from the rear, spilling gas and causing a fire. NHTSA said a three-year investigation showed that 51 people had died in fiery crashes in Jeeps with gas tanks positioned behind the rear axle.
Chrysler, which had until Tuesday to formally respond to NHTSA, maintains that the vehicles aren't defective but said dealers will inspect them and upgrade the rear structure if needed to better handle low-speed crashes. The automaker will install trailer hitches on vehicles without them to protect the gas tanks, as well as on those with broken hitches or that have hitches that aren't from Chrysler.
Erik Gordon, a law and marketing professor at the University of Michigan, says Chrysler realized it was headed for a public-relations disaster and decided to reverse course. "What happened is they get surprised by how loud the hue and cry is."
Gordon says Chrysler's image will still get dinged a little "because it looks as if they have done the right thing only because they were forced to."
Chrysler executives probably realized that their chance for success was slim, because courts have given wide latitude to government regulatory agencies, says David Kelly, former acting NHTSA administrator under President George W. Bush.
NHTSA said in a statement that it's pleased with Chrysler's decision, with others in the industry noting that historically the automaker has been very committed to safety.
NHTSA began investigating the Jeeps at the request of the Center for Auto Safety, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group. Clarence Ditlow, the center's director, says the trailer hitch remedy should be tested by NHTSA before the repairs are made. He's cautiously optimistic that the solution will make the Jeeps safer.
Chrysler will begin notifying owners about the recall in about a month, the company said.
The last time an automaker defied a NHTSA recall request was early in 2011, when Ford said that calling back 1.2 million pickups for defective air bags wasn't justified. Ford later agreed to the recall after NHTSA threatened to conduct a rare public hearing on the issue.
In a statement one June 4, Chrysler said its review of nearly 30 years of data showed a low number of rear-impact crashes involving fire or a fuel leak in the affected Jeeps. "The rate is similar to comparable vehicles produced and sold during the time in question," the company said. It also said NHTSA left some similar vehicles out of its investigation.
But NHTSA found at least 32 rear-impact crashes and fires in Grand Cherokees that caused 44 deaths. It also found at least five rear crashes in Libertys, causing seven deaths. The agency calculated that the older Grand Cherokees and Libertys have fatal crash rates that are about double those of similar vehicles. It compared the Jeeps with the Chevrolet S10 Blazer, Ford Explorer, Toyota 4Runner, Isuzu Rodeo, Isuzu Trooper, Mitsubishi Montero, Suzuki Sidekick and Suzuki XL-7. What's next
The company said dealers will do visual inspections of the vehicles and, if necessary, provide an "upgrade to the rear structure" to improve protection in low-speed crashes.