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WASHINGTON -- The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has closed its investigation into fire risks in 2.7 million older Jeep vehicles, ending a rare public standoff between U.S. regulators and an automaker over whether a safety recall is justified.
The agency last spring asked Chrysler Group to recall 1992-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees and the 2002-07 Jeep Libertys, saying the vehicles have a heightened risk of catching fire because their gasoline tanks were mounted behind the rear axle.
Chrysler refused to recall the vehicles in June; weeks later the automaker reversed itself, agreeing to install trailer hitches on some of the SUVs for additional crash protection.
In a statement released Friday, NHTSA said it had "no reservations" about Chrysler's plans, despite the company's admission that a trailer hitch would not protect against the high-speed, high-impact crashes that typically led to fires.
"The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is deeply committed to reducing the number of deaths and injuries on our nation's roadways," the agency said. "Throughout this process, the agency has been in close communication with Chrysler and has no reservations at this time with their announced actions to move forward. Consumers should have their vehicles serviced promptly once they receive final notification from Chrysler. NHTSA will continue to monitor consumer outreach as the recall process continues."
NHTSA also said it will formally conclude its investigation "in the coming weeks" by publishing a final analysis of the Jeep vehicles.
The decision serves as vindication for Chrysler Group. The company has insisted that the SUVs in question met all safety standards when sold, and that the choice to put the fuel tank behind the rear axle is not a defect that justifies a recall.
"Chrysler Group commends the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for the diligence demonstrated over the course of this investigation," the automaker said in a statement. "We share NHTSA's commitment to safety."
Chrysler Group has not begun installing the trailer hitches. The automaker says it has chosen the design of the hitch and is preparing tooling to produce them.
"Launching a safety recall demands complex engineering and close collaboration with NHTSA, well before we accumulate replacement parts," the company said in a statement.