(USA Today) -- Federal safety regulators on Thursday expanded to 5 million Jeeps their probe of gas tank fire risk in rear crashes.
Chrysler Group continues to say it has no evidence of increased fire risk or a defect in the vehicles.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said that it has upgraded its "preliminary" probe of 3.04 million 1993 to 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees into a more serious full-scale engineering analysis. It also added the 1993 to 2001 Jeep Cherokee and the 2002 to 2007 Jeep Liberty, bringing the total to about 5.1 million Jeeps.
So far, none of the vehicles are being recalled over the issue. Such NHTSA investigations may or may not lead to recalls and aim to discover if there is a safety defect that creates increased risk of crashes or injuries.
The Jeep probe began in September 2010 as a result of a petition from advocacy group Center for Auto Safety, which alleged the location of the gas tanks, behind the rear axle and below the bumper, makes them excessively prone to fires in crashes. In the 2005 and newer-model Grand Cherokees and the 2008 and newer Liberties, the fuel tank is located differently. The lower-level Cherokee model was discontinued.
Chrysler says it believes there's nothing wrong with its design. In documents, Chrysler said the nearly 3 million Grand Cherokees originally at the center of the probe had been driven more than 200 billion miles. It said that out of 180 fatal crashes involving those vehicles, 23 involved rear impact and fire. In close examination, Chrysler said it found that rate of crashes and resulting damage was no greater than for other comparable vehicles with other designs.
The Grand Cherokee is a "very safe vehicle," says Chrysler safety manager Dave Dillon, who said almost all of the fatal rear impact crashes involved speeds higher than 50 miles per hour. He expressed confidence that the government will come to agree after its thorough analysis.
Chrysler put out this statement:
Chrysler Group is cooperating fully with NHTSA regarding an investigation into 1993-2004 model year Jeep Grand Cherokee, 1993-to 2001 Jeep Cherokee and 2002 to 2007 Jeep Liberty vehicles. It is important to note that this is still an investigation, not a recall.
In connection with this investigation, Chrysler Group studied publicly available data involving more than 21,000 rear impacts in the original subject vehicle - the 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee -- and peers. It is apparent from this study that rear impacts resulting in a fire are extremely rare, rear impacts resulting in a fire occur no more often in 1993 - 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee vehicles than in peer vehicles and the 1993 - 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee vehicles are at no greater risk of exposure to fire in rear end collisions than peer vehicles.
Accordingly, Chrysler Group has concluded that 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee vehicles are neither defective nor do their fuel systems pose an unreasonable risk to motor vehicle safety in rear impact collisions. We would expect that a similar analysis of subject vehicles recently added to this investigation would support a similar conclusion.
The 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee and other subject vehicles meet or exceed all applicable federal motor vehicle safety standards and have excellent safety records with hundreds of billions of vehicle miles driven.
Any recall of such massive size would be a big financial issue for the new Fiat-run Chrysler Group, as well as a black eye for the Jeep brand -- even though the vehicles in question were produced during the dark days of the company's ownership by Daimler and then equity firm Cerberus.
Under the 2009 government-supervised bankruptcy, the new Chrysler retains responsibility for safety recalls of such older vehicles. But the new company has some protection from liability for lawsuits regarding old Chrysler's pre-bankruptcy products.