The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has upped the ante on its investigation of fuel tank related fires on 5.1 million 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees. They've gone from preliminary investigation to engineering analysis — their version of going from threat level yellow to orange — and widened the probe to 5.1 million Jeeps.
Since the investigation began in 2010, NHTSA has received reports of 15 fatalities and 41 injuries in fuel-tank related crashes for Grand Cherokees in that year range. It also found that 254 people died in 185 fatal fire crashes that weren't necessarily caused by rear impact.
The federal agency cited the Pinto-like placement of the fuel tank between the rear bumper and the axle as a potential cause for rear impact fire danger it said is more prevalent than in non-Chrysler vehicles of the same type (they reasoned that rear impact could cause the fuel tank to leak and catch on fire).
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Predictably, Chrysler denied any wrongdoing, saying that its SUVs are no more dangerous than other manufacturers' offerings. The company's engineers moved the fuel tank in front of the rear axle in 2005. But a spokesperson said that the design relocation was due to a lengthened wheelbase and relocated spare tire rather than any safety concerns.
The federal government will have the last word on the SUVs design, and could either push for a recall or simply drop the issue if the Grand Cherokee is deemed safe. In the meantime, Chrysler will bear the torch of its own righteousness.
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