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Investigation into Jeep fires expanded to 5.1 million SUVs

Consumer Reports News: June 14, 2012 05:38 PM

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Safety regulators have upgraded an investigation into fires in older Jeep Grand Cherokees, from model years 1993-2004, and expanded it to include two other Jeep models with suspect rear-mounted fuel tanks: the 1993-2001 Jeep Cherokee and the 2002-2007 Jeep Liberty. The total number of vehicles involved is estimated to be 5.1 million. Such upgraded investigations often lead to a recall.

As we've reported extensively, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) safety investigation into the Grand Cherokee was launched in 2010 in response to a petition by the Center for Auto Safety (CAS), one of the nation's oldest safety lobbying groups, after CAS noted a higher rate of fatal fires in Grand Cherokees in the federal Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) database than other comparable vehicles. In fact, CAS Executive Director Clarence Ditlow says there have been about 10 times as many fire deaths in Grand Cherokees as in Ford Pinto, which was infamously recalled after 27 people died in fires following rear-end collisions.

At issue is the Jeeps' design, which includes a plastic fuel tank mounted behind the rear axle, in front of the bumper. Ditlow says that not only is the tank vulnerable in that location, especially in a high-riding SUV, but the filler neck is prone to detaching in an impact and spilling fuel.

The first-generation Liberty and '93-01 Cherokee share a similar design, so NHTSA included them in the upgraded investigation, called an engineering analysis. It's worth noting that after German automaker Daimler took over Chrysler in 1998, the Grand Cherokee was redesigned for the 2005 model year and the fuel tank was relocated inside the frame.

NHTSA will perform a comparative assessment on the Chevrolet Blazer, Ford Explorer, and Toyota 4Runner.

For its part, Chrysler responds that the Grand Cherokee is among the safest SUVs of the era, all things considered. This is from an era that also produced the first-generation Ford Explorer, which was the subject of the largest recall in history following a spate of fatal rollovers linked to tires blowing out. Chrysler also notes that the rate of Grand Cherokee fires specifically linked to rear-end collisions is less than half that of the Pinto, and that Grand Cherokees have had a lot more years of exposure on the road.

Ditlow counters that the Grand Cherokee's fuel tank design makes it prone to creating fires in other types of crashes, such as rollovers, crashes where the vehicle spins and gets crunched in the rear later in an accident, and even fires that envelop other cars that hit a Grand Cherokee.

NHTSA's latest action supports Ditlow's claim that the investigation should be expanded to include other causes of fuel-tank fires in Jeep crashes, and that automakers have a responsibility to follow industry best practices every time when it comes to safety.

Jeep Grand Cherokee fire investigation shows how accident statistics are open to interpretation
Fire deaths in Jeep Grand Cherokees continue to mount, safety group reaches out to Chrysler

NHTSA Jeep Grand Cherokee fire investigation grows—by one

NHTSA to investigate 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees for fire risk

Eric Evarts

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