The federal government alleges that the answers to both questions are yes; but in a rare, public pushback to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Chrysler Group contends that the vehicles—potentially 2.7 million of them in all—are safe, and not defective.
Usually, automakers pre-emptively issue recalls well before the government orders them, and it's become very rare in recent years for an automaker to provide this kind of resistance.
“The company does not agree with NHTSA’s conclusions and does not intend to recall the vehicles cited in the investigation,” said Chrysler in an official response to a NHTSA recall letter issued this week.
Feds connect at least 49 fire deaths, many more injuries
In the letter to Chrysler, the federal agency notes that there have been “numerous fire-related deaths and injuries, fires that did not result in deaths and fuel leaks in rear impacts.”
“As discussed more fully below, ODI believes that the MY 1993-2004 Grand Cherokee and MY 2002-2007 Liberty contain defects related to motor vehicle safety,” writes the federal agency. “Accordingly, ODI requests that Chrysler initiate a safety recall of these vehicles.”
The letter outlines the checkered safety history of vehicles with fuel tanks located aft of the rear axle (Ford's Pinto is one of the most often mentioned, and it is here). It also notes that with the original 'ZJ' Grand Cherokee, the fuel tank was moved back, to be in close proximity to the rear bumper.
At issue is that the Grand Cherokee's higher ride height also makes its rear-mounted tank more vulnerable in impacts—when it's rear-ended by a passenger car, for instance.
2007 Jeep Liberty Sport
Feds: Grand Cherokee has a defect
For determining whether this would be considered a safety defect, the federal agency collected post-crash fire information for the Grand Cherokee versus its peer vehicles at the time—the General Motors S10 Blazer, Ford Explorer, Toyota 4Runner, Isuzu Rodeo, Isuzu Trooper, Mitsubishi Montero, Suzuki Sidekick , and Suzuki XL-7 were mentioned.
The agency then adjusted for the number remaining on the road using Polk registration data, and found that the fatal incident rate was far higher than most of those vehicles.
NHTSA notes that it has tentatively attributed 44 deaths over 32 rear-impact fire crashes to the issue with the Grand Cherokee, while seven deaths over five crashes have been attributed to the issue in the Liberty. The letter also includes several pictures of affected vehicles, burned out or in flames, after being rear-ended by other Chrysler vehicles.
Chrysler: Fed analysis isn't correct
Chrysler, which has been sharing data with the Agency since 2010, says that the fed's analysis isn't correct. “Our analysis shows the incidents, which are the focus of this request, occur less than once for every million years of vehicle operation,” stated the automaker. “This rate is similar to comparable vehicles produced and sold during the time in question.”
The automaker meanwhile, invites concerned owners to call its customer care line at 800-334-9200.