NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — In a rare rebuff of the U.S. government, Chrysler Group is refusing a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration request for a recall of 2.7 million SUVs, saying that the gas tank design being cited by the agency is safe.
The vehicles involved are the Jeep Grand Cherokee, model years 1993 to 2004, and the Jeep Liberty from model years 2002 to 2007.
It is the first time since 1996 that an automaker has challenged a recall demand from the safety agency. That case, also involving Chrysler, was over the seat belt system on 91,000 cars. Chrysler — which was an independent U.S. company at the time — won a federal court decision on that dispute two years later.
Chrysler — now controlled by the Italian carmaker Fiat after the 2009 U.S. government-sponsored bailout — said it has been working with the agency over concerns over the vehicles in the current dispute since 2010.
Chrysler says that the design of the gas tank cited by NHTSA — placed behind the rear axle — is a commonly accepted design used in many other vehicles. It also says that the fatal accidents that occurred involving the vehicles were almost all high-speed, high-energy accidents in which a different design would have made no difference.
For example, it said one accident involved a tractor-trailer truck traveling 65 miles per hour that hit a stationary Grand Cherokee.
“We believe NHTSA’s initial conclusions are based on an incomplete analysis of the underlying data, and we are committed to continue working with the agency to resolve this disagreement,” said the automaker’s statement. It said it typically conducts recalls before it receives any notices from the safety agency.
Since it started the recall process in 1966, NHTSA said it has been involved in 17,000 separate recalls involving about 500 million vehicles.
NHTSA did not have an immediate comment on Chrysler’s statement, although it did provide a copy of the letter requesting the recall that was sent to Chrysler on Monday.
The NHTSA investigation began at the request of the Center for Auto Safety, a Washington public interest group. The group said there have been 201 fire crashes with 285 deaths involving the Grand Cherokees, and 36 accidents resulting in 53 deaths involving the Libertys.
Clarence Ditlow, the Center for Auto Safety’s executive director, has asked Chrysler to recall those model year Grand Cherokees on its own, and has also written to NHTSA asking the agency to order a recall. The group said that
“The only way to prevent more fire deaths is for NHTSA to order a mandatory safety recall and require Chrysler to design an effective remedy,” said Ditlow in his letter to NHTSA.
Chrysler says that there are many models of other automakers with far higher fatality rates, and that the incidents cited by the agency “occur less than once for every million years of vehicle operation.”
“NHTSA seems to be holding Chrysler Group to a new standard for fuel tank integrity that does not exist now and did not exist when the Jeep vehicles were manufactured,” said the company.
But the Center for Auto Safety said the risk of fire for a Grand Cherokee in the model years in question is more than 20 times greater than the risk in a comparable Ford Explorer. NHTSA’s letter to Chrysler said the vehicles in the recall request perform poorly in regard to fatalities, fires without fatalities, and fuel leaks when compared to all but one similar vehicle.