In an unusual show of defiance, Chrysler said Tuesday that it would refuse to recall roughly 2.7 million Jeep Grand Cherokees and Liberties for an alleged defect that could cause dangerous fires.
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But Chrysler, in a strongly worded document it called a "white paper," contended Tuesday that the "vehicles are not defective and their fuel systems do not pose an unreasonable risk to motor vehicle safety."
In a statement, the Auburn Hills, Mich., automaker said it "does not intend to recall the vehicles cited in the investigation."
As the nation's auto safety regulator, the NHTSA has the power to request recalls, but it cannot enforce them. To do so, it must ask the Justice Department to sue on its behalf. Taking such a step against an automaker is extremely rare, in part because few companies are willing to fight a recall that hard.
Auto safety experts say that in most cases in which automakers initially refuse a recall, they typically end up doing it anyway in the face of increasing pressure and mounting negative publicity. In February 2011, for example,
The NHTSA investigation of the Jeep fuel tanks, begun in 2010, alleges that 1993 to 2004 model year Grand Cherokees and 2002 to 2007 Liberties are more prone to fuel leaks and fires than other vehicles with fuel tanks mounted in similar locations.
Its analysis found that vehicles such as the Toyota 4Runner had a "fatal rear impact fire crash rate" of about one-fifth of that in the Grand Cherokee, for example.
"In our tentative view, there is a performance defect and a design defect" in the Grand Cherokees and Liberties, wrote Frank S. Borris II, director of the NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation, in a letter to Chrysler requesting a recall. The letter did not, however, specify a specific remedy.