DETROIT — Chrysler abruptly agreed to recall 2.7 million older model Jeeps Tuesday, reversing a defiant posture and avoiding a possible public relations nightmare over fuel tanks that can catch fire in a rear-end collision.
In deciding on the recall, Chrysler avoided a showdown with government safety regulators that could have led to public hearings with witnesses giving details of deadly crashes involving the Jeeps. The dispute ultimately could have landed in court and hurt both Chrysler’s image and its finances.
Earlier this month, the company refused the government’s request to recall Jeep Grand Cherokees from model years 1993 through 2004 and Jeep Libertys from 2002 through 2007. The company said calls from concerned customers played a part in its reversing course.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the agency that monitors vehicle safety, contends that the Jeep’s gas tank can rupture if hit from the rear, causing a fire. NHTSA said a three-year investigation showed that 51 people had died in fiery crashes in Jeeps with gas tanks positioned behind the rear axle.
Two weeks ago, Chrysler said that the vehicles aren’t defective, despite prior statements to the contrary from NHTSA. The company vouched for the vehicles safety again Tuesday.
Chrysler said that dealers will inspect the vehicles and install trailer hitches to protect the gas tanks. The company said vehicles without hitches will get them, as will those with broken hitches or hitches that aren’t from Chrysler.
Chrysler wouldn’t say how much the trailer hitches would cost.
The last time an automaker defied a NHTSA recall request was early in 2011, when Ford said that calling back 1.2 million pickup trucks for defective air bags wasn’t justified. Ford later agreed to the recall after NHTSA threatened to hold a rare public hearing on the issue.
NHTSA began investigating the SUVs three years ago at the behest of Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety, an advocacy group.
Earlier this month, the agency sent a letter to Chrysler asking it to voluntarily recall Grand Cherokees from 1993 through 2004 and Libertys from 2002 through 2007. The plastic gas tanks, the government said, can rupture when hit from behind, spilling fuel and causing deadly fires.
Chrysler responded publicly, saying in a statement that it “does not intend to recall the vehicles.” The car company’s formal response is due Tuesday.
Chrysler Group LLC, which is majority-owned by Italy’s Fiat SpA, said the Jeeps are among the safest vehicles of their era.