On Friday, the Center for Auto Safety petitioned NHTSA to initiate a defect investigation that could potentially cover hundreds of thousands of Jeep Grand Cherokee SUVs from model years 1993 through 2004.
According to the group, on these older Grand Cherokee models, the plastic fuel tank actually extends below the bumper, so it's more vulnerable to being punctured in an rear-end or rollover accident. The rear sway bar link bolt is just over an inch away from the tank, according to research from the Motor Vehicle Fire Research Institute (MVFRI), and could puncture the tank in a crash.
"The design is so bad that Chrysler frequently settles lawsuits without extensive discovery and subject to confidentiality agreements," stated the group's petition, which cited a total of 172 fire crashes—with 254 fatalities—in affected Grand Cherokees from calendar year 1992 through 2008, according to the federal government's Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) data. The fatal fire-crash rate is about four times higher for the Grand Cherokee than for other SUVs, according to the petition, while the fatal fire rate for the 1993-04 model is six times higher than that of the newer Grand Cherokee models.
As part of a response to the NY Times, Chrysler spokesman Mike Palese said, "Chrysler Group is confident that a proper 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."
DaimlerChrysler moved the tank to a new position ahead of the rear axle in 2005 and shielded it from such punctures. The petition explains that since the relocation, there have no fatalities that were the result of fire in the revised models.
"To protect the public from more fire deaths and injuries in the 1993-04 Grand Cherokee as they continue to crash and burn, the Center for Auto Safety requests an immediate recall," stated the petition, signed by executive director Clarence Ditlow.
After lobbying from consumer groups earlier this summer, the 'new' Chrysler has agreed to accept legal responsibility for vehicles produced by the 'old' Chrysler.
NHTSA can decide whether to begin an investigation, which could lead to a recall, based either on its own analysis or complaints. Past campaigns from the Center for Auto Safety—once spearheaded by Ralph Nader—have helped lead to prior recalls of the Ford Pinto and GM pickups, both over fire concerns.
[NY Times; Center for Auto Safety]