(Bloomberg) – Chrysler Group LLC said it won’t recall 2.7 million Jeep sport-utility vehicles that the U.S. Transportation Department has been investigating for more than two years following reports of fires after rear-impact crashes.
The Auburn Hills, Michigan-based automaker, which is majority owned by Italy’s Fiat SpA, said today it received a letter proposing recalls for Jeep Grand Cherokees in model years 1993 to 2004 and the Jeep Liberty in model years 2002 to 2007.
Chrysler, in a report on the request, called the SUVs “among the safest vehicles of their era” and said it will fight any recall.
“The safety of drivers and passengers has long been the first priority for Chrysler brands and that commitment remains steadfast,” said Sergio Marchionne, chairman and chief executive officer of Chrysler and Fiat. “The company stands behind the quality of its vehicles.”
Last June, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration upgraded a defect investigation into the fuel systems in as many as 5.1 million Jeep vehicles following reports of about two dozen fires. NHTSA opened its probe into the Chrysler vehicles in October 2010.
Clarence Ditlow, head of The Center for Auto Safety, called the vehicles “a modern-day Pinto for soccer moms” in a 2011 letter to Marchionne. The center is a consumer advocacy group based in Washington.
About 1.5 million Ford Motor Co. Pintos were recalled in the late 1970s because of concerns that rear-end collisions could spill gasoline and ignite fires.
If Chrysler refuses to recall the vehicles, NHTSA “may proceed to an initial decision that these vehicles contain a safety-related defect,” a move that would involve publishing a list of alleged defects in the Federal Register and scheduling a public meeting, the agency said in its letter.
NHTSA’s letter, written by Frank Borris, enforcement director of the agency’s defects investigations office, included pictures of burned and burning Jeep models involved in accidents.
Chrysler said in its statement that all the vehicles under scrutiny meet or exceed federal safety standards, including those relating to fuel-system integrity. The company cooperated with NHTSA’s review, providing technical information and analyses, it said.
Chrysler said the incidents NHTSA’s investigation focused on occur fewer than once for every 1 million years of vehicle operation. The vehicles are no more prone to be involved in fatal, rear-impact crashes with fires than similar vehicles, the company said.
NHTSA’s conclusions are “based on incomplete analysis of the underlying data,” Chrysler said. The automaker said it’s continuing to work with the agency to resolve disagreements. The company previously fought a NHTSA recall in 1997, it said.
Chrysler has “a solid relationship with NHTSA,” company spokesman Eric Mayne said. “We routinely recall vehicles before receiving a single customer complaint.”
Dennis Virag, president of Automotive Consulting Group in Ann Arbor, Michigan, said Chrysler probably will meet with NHTSA to share more of its testing and analysis.
“Sergio is a supreme negotiator,” Virag said. “I don’t think he would be refusing to do the recall if he was not 100 percent certain that through all of the testing Chrysler has done that there is not a problem with the fuel tanks.
‘‘There’s going to be a negotiation that begins after that data is compared,” he said. “The government has been known to make mistakes before. They don’t readily admit it, but everyone is prone to error.”
Karen Aldana, a NHTSA spokeswoman, said she didn’t have an immediate response to Chrysler’s statement.