WASHINGTON -- Federal regulators have begun an investigation covering 3 million Jeep Grand Cherokees to determine whether more than a dozen post-crash fires and deaths are connected to the placement of the SUV's fuel tank.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said its preliminary examination of 1993-2004 Jeep models found 13 deaths in 10 crashes "most likely associated with the alleged defect."
But it also said its preliminary review of data on the Jeep Grand Cherokees "did not find the subject vehicles to be over-represented for post-crash fires."
The Center for Auto Safety says the Grand Cherokee's fuel tank extends below the rear bumper behind the rear axle and lacks adequate protection in crashes and rollovers. The fuel tank position was changed for the 2005 model year.
NHTSA found complaints from vehicle owners alleging nine injuries and one death stemming from post-crash fuel tank leaks or fires, the agency said on its Web site.
Chrysler Group said it is cooperating with the investigation.
"It is important to note that this is an investigation, not a recall," Chrysler spokesman Michael Palese said. "Indeed, the 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee meets or exceeds all applicable federal safety standards and has an excellent safety record."
Clarence Ditlow, head of the Center for Auto Safety, called on Chrysler to recall all 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees.
NHTSA said consumer complaints of post-crash fires do not by themselves "establish a defect trend."