"Chrysler Group regards safety as a paramount concern and does not compromise on the safety of our customers and their families."
NHTSA officials today commended Chrysler for agreeing to take steps to protect Jeep owners but said it planned to continue studying the matter.
"Consumers impacted by the safety recall and customer satisfaction campaign should have their vehicles serviced promptly once they receive notification from Chrysler," the agency said in a statement. "We will continue our investigation into this issue, pending the agency's review of the documents provided by Chrysler in its recall action."
In its initial response, Chrysler disputed the agency's findings that 1993-2004 Grand Cherokees and 2002-07 Libertys had an increased probability of catching fire when struck from the rear.
Chrysler had asserted that NHTSA's analysis of crash data was flawed and that the two models fared better than several other similar vehicles that had not been targeted for a recall. It also disputed NHTSA's finding that the vehicles suffer from a design defect because their fuel tanks are located behind the rear axle.
The cost of the steps Chrysler agreed to take is unknown, especially since it's unclear how many of the 2.7 million recalled SUVs remaining on the road will qualify for the added trailer hitch.
Chrysler said the inspections will cover 1.56 million 1993-98 Grand Cherokee and 2002-07 Jeep Liberty models. Vehicles with a factory-installed hitch assembly, or an aftermarket model made by Mopar, will not need to be modified, a Chrysler spokesman said.
Owners of 1999-2004 Grand Cherokee models will receive a letter informing them to have their vehicles inspected, but only if they have an aftermarket rear hitch installed. Vehicles without a hitch or with a factory hitch will not be subjected to an inspection, Chrysler said.
Chrysler's initial response to NHTSA was being watched closely across the industry by automakers who were concerned that if NHTSA prevailed it could force other automakers to update much older vehicles to make them safer.
Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, has been pressing Chrysler to recall the vehicles since 2010.
He called on NHTSA today to do crash tests of Chrysler's proposed remedy to determine that the modified Jeeps meet federal safety standards.
"If the modified Jeeps do not pass, we call on NHTSA to require Chrysler to develop a more effective remedy," Ditlow said in a statement. He also urged Chrysler to extend the recall to 1993-2001 Jeep Cherokees, adding those models "are still under investigation by NHTSA."
Alec Gutierrez, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book, said Chrysler likely recognized the danger to its reputation in openly defying NHTSA.
"Consumers have been forgiving when manufacturers have chosen to comply with NHTSA requests in recent years and now that Chrysler has softened their stance, they should escape any negative impact to their brand," Gutierrez said.
Chrysler's approximately 2,300 dealerships are likely to see added service work from the agreement with NHTSA, as they will be tasked with installing the trailer hitches.
Gary Brown, head of the Chrysler National Dealer Council and a dealer on New York's Long Island, said he hadn't heard much from customers about the dispute between Chrysler and NHTSA, but he's glad it's over.
"It's going to make us busy, no doubt about that," installing the trailer hitches, Brown said. "But I'm glad to see that the corporation and NHTSA were able to work things out and keep the public safe."