One year ago, we reported on an unusual showdown between Chrysler and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration over a proposed recall of the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Jeep Liberty. Despite Chrysler's initial resistance, the stalemate was short-lived, and within a couple of weeks, the automaker had agreed to fix the faulty models.
Twelve months later, vehicles affected by the recall still roam the roads, unrepaired. What gives?
The problem with the 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee and the 2002-2007 Jeep Liberty stems from the placement of the gas tank. That tank sits behind the rear axle, which makes it more susceptible to rupture during a rear-end collision, a thus, a greater fire hazard (see also: the Ford Pinto).
NHTSA linked at least 49 deaths and scores of injuries to fires that broke out on the affected models. Chrysler didn't dispute the linkages or the underlying problem, but it insisted that fires on the Grand Cherokee and Liberty were rare and that the tank placement didn't constitute a design flaw. (Notably, however, the company changed the tank's location on later models.)
And so, Chrysler dug in its heels, refusing to follow through on NHTSA's request for a recall of the 2.7 million Jeep vehicles. That was unusual, and it made headlines across the country.
Unfortunately, Chrysler didn't foresee the backlash that would follow. The idea that an automaker would balk at fixing a major flaw on its vehicles -- a flaw that had been linked to dozens of deaths -- didn't sit well with American consumers. As a result, its public image suffered, slipping to lows that hadn't been seen since the company took billions of federal bailout dollars during the Great Recession.
Within a couple of weeks, Chrysler relented -- begrudgingly -- but fixing the problem would be more complicated than with most recalls. Tweaking some electrical wiring to stop random airbag deployments is a fairly straightforward task (when it works). Addressing the placement of a gas tank? That's a very different matter.
Months later, in January of this year, Chrysler's fix for the problem was approved by NHTSA. According to an agency bulletin:
"On vehicles in the recall that are not equipped with a tow hitch, Chrysler will install a Chrysler designed tow hitch free of charge, provided the condition of the vehicle can support proper installation. On vehicles in the recall that are equipped with an aftermarket tow hitch, Chrysler will assess whether the hitch and surrounding areas show evidence of sharp edges or other puncture risks. If so, Chrysler will replace the tow hitch with a Chrysler designed tow hitch free of charge, provided the condition of the vehicle can support proper installation. On vehicles already equipped with a Chrysler designed tow hitch, Chrysler will inspect the area around the tow hitch installation, and if any installation issues are identified, they will be repaired free of charge."
It's not a perfect solution -- Chrysler admits that it only offers "incremental improvement" in low- and moderate-speed crashes, and that it "cannot, and will not, mitigate the risk" in high-speed collisions. But NHTSA seems pleased, and given the nature of the problem, it may be as good as Chrysler can do.
ONE YEAR LATER
So, it's now June of 2014. What's the latest news?
We're still in a holding pattern -- and we'll continue to be until the end of the summer. According to NHTSA, "As of April 2014, the remedy parts are still not available, but are expected to become available starting in August 2014".
In other words, Jeep owners across the country will be spending the summer road trip season driving to the beach, to the mountains, and to the outlet mall in vehicles that are more prone than others to catch fire in a collision. That's troubling.
If there's any good news, it's that the number or affected Jeeps has been revised downward, from 2.7 million to 1.56 million, due to the age of the vehicles. Small solace, but we'll take what we can get.
We'll let you know when the recalls begin in earnest this August. Hopefully.