As many as 5.1 million Jeeps are being investigated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration as it upgrades its preliminary probe into fuel tank fires following rear-end impacts.
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‘Modern day Pinto?’
Federal regulators were originally alerted to an inordinate number of fires following crashes in the 1993-2004 by a petition from the Center for Auto Safety. The safety group called the SUVs “a modern-day Pinto for soccer moms.” That led to the preliminary investigation, launched in August, 2010.
In the late 1970s, Ford recalled a million and a half of its Pinto models over gas tank fires following rear-end crashes.
Probe expanded to other models
The preliminary investigation found that some Jeep models are more prone to fuel tank ruptures after being rear-ended, when compared to other SUVs on the market, such as the Ford Explorer. On June 12, the NHTSA reported that it will be expanding its probe to include the 1993-2001 Jeep Cherokee, and the Liberty compact SUV made between 2002 and 2007.
The agency continued, saying that the fuel tank is positioned between the rear axle and the rear bumper on the three Jeep models targeted, possibly raising its vulnerability to rupturing upon rear-end impacts.
Deaths and injuries
The NHTSA says that it is aware of about two dozen rear-impact collisions that have led to fires in the vehicles, some of which have caused fatalities. A passenger trapped in a 1997 Jeep Grand Cherokee, following a November 2011 collision in Florida, perished in the resulting fire.
The NHTSA says that at least 14 other deaths and 46 injuries may be attributable to the alleged defect.
Could prompt recall
The stepped-up investigation is what the federal regulatory agency calls an Engineering Engineering Analysis. The next step in the agency protocol would be to launch a recall campaign.
According to Dennis Virag, president of Automotive Consulting Group in Ann Arbor, Michigan, said that, should the investigation lead to a recall, it will be among the 10 largest ever conducted in the U.S.:
“With the number of vehicles involved and potential severity of the problem, this could set Chrysler back considerably. The cost to Chrysler could be considerable, and the cost in terms of reputation would be high.”
Chrysler denies findings
Chrysler Group LLC, now controlled by Fiat SpA, denied the conclusion in a June 14 statement, saying it doubts the matter will lead to a recall:
“[Grand Cherokees] are neither defective nor do their fuel systems pose an unreasonable risk to motor vehicle safety in rear impact collisions.”