DETROIT -- For 17 years, automakers have complied with every request for a recall, no matter how costly, from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
And then last week, in a startling decision, Chrysler Group said no. It refused a request from NHTSA to recall 2.7 million 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees and 2002-07 Libertys for an alleged fire risk caused by fuel tanks mounted behind the rear axle.
Chrysler's "no" was a high-risk answer and one that came directly from CEO Sergio Marchionne and his top lieutenants at Chrysler, company sources said.
The refusal to recall the Jeeps could damage the company's recovering reputation for quality and cost more, ultimately, than doing the recall immediately.
In addition, Chrysler executives are wary of agreeing to a deal in which NHTSA requires an automaker to retrofit old vehicles to meet current notions of safety.
Industry analyst Jim Hall, of 2953 Analytics in suburban Detroit, says "no" is the right answer sometimes, despite the risks.
"There are times when the manufacturer's data doesn't jibe with NHTSA's data, and that's the case here," Hall said. "NHTSA is overreacting. Manufacturers started rolling over sooner than they have needed to, and now the pendulum is swinging back. It will be interesting to see how this shakes out."