NHTSA says that since 1992, 44 Grand Cherokee crashes and 55 deaths have been reported in which fire was listed as the most harmful factor. Of those, 10 crashes and 13 deaths were linked to rear-end crashes. NHTSA will determine whether a recall is necessary, but the agency said a preliminary review did not find the vehicles to be overrepresented for post-crash fires.
All this happens at an inauspicious time for Chrysler Group, which has just rolled out an all-new Grand Cherokee. Not only does the new version have the gas tank inboard -- that is, within the frame -- but so did the version it replaces.
Still, the new investigation is a headache for Chrysler. The 2011 Grand Cherokee is a crucial vehicle on its road to recovery. Chrysler has been running an extensive multimedia ad campaign for the vehicle and doesn't plan to stop.
Chrysler spokesman Michael Palese says the automaker is cooperating with NHTSA. He says the investigation is not a recall. The 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee meets or exceeds all federal safety standards and has an excellent safety record, Palese says.
If NHTSA determines a recall is necessary, it will tell Chrysler to create a fix for the problem.
The investigation was prompted by a petition from the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety, founded by Ralph Nader. Clarence Ditlow, the center's executive director, says the safety issues differ between the 1993-98 version of the Grand Cherokee and the 1999-2004 edition. But he says both generations have one thing in common: "A lot of the fatal fire crashes [involve] low-profile vehicles."
Two of the vehicles, for example, a Ford Taurus and Toyota Celica, wedged underneath the Grand Cherokee, lifted the vehicle up and moved the gasoline tank forward and upward, he says. The Grand Cherokee's fuel tank hangs partly below the rear fascia.
For 1993-98 models, Ditlow says, Chrysler cut a hole in the vehicle's frame rail and placed the fuel filler hose through the hole. The filler hose extends from the gasoline cap to a check valve.
The valve prevents gasoline from escaping from the fuel tank. When fuel is added to the tank, the pressure of the flowing gasoline opens the valve to allow gasoline into the tank. When refueling is completed, the valve automatically closes.
In a crash conducted by the Center for Auto Safety, Ditlow says, "that hole pinches the hose and pulls it out. The hose is not long enough."
With the force of the accident, "the check valve came out with the filler hose" releasing gasoline, he says.
"It clearly had a structural weakness," Ditlow says. "I know of no other vehicle that has ever had a filler hose go through a frame rail."
The Grand Cherokees under investigation all had plastic fuel tanks. Ditlow says the tanks involved in the fatal crashes melted.