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Chrysler changes mind, agrees to massive Jeep recall

DETROIT – Chrysler avoided a showdown with government safety regulators Tuesday, agreeing to recall 2.7 million older Jeep Grand Cherokee and Liberty SUVs that could be at risk of a fuel tank fire.

Earlier this month the company defiantly refused the government’s request to recall the Jeeps. But Chrysler now says it will go ahead with the recall after getting calls from concerned customers.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration contended that the Jeep’s gas tank could rupture if hit from the rear, causing a fire. NHTSA said 51 people had died in fiery crashes in Jeeps with gas tanks positioned behind the rear axle.

The recall covers Jeep Grand Cherokees from model years 1993 through 2004 and Jeep Libertys from 2002 through 2007.

Chrysler said Tuesday that dealers will inspect the vehicles and install trailer hitches to protect the gas tanks. The company said vehicles without hitches will get them, as will those with broken hitches or hitches that aren’t from Chrysler.

In a statement, Chrysler maintained that the vehicles aren’t defective, despite prior statements to the contrary from NHTSA.

Car companies rarely spar publicly with the NHTSA. The last time an automaker denied a NHTSA recall request was early in 2011, when Ford said calling back 1.2 million pickup trucks for defective air bags wasn’t justified. Ford later agreed to the recall after NHTSA threatened to hold a rare public hearing on the issue.

NHTSA began investigating the SUVs three years ago at the behest of Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety, an advocacy group.

Chrysler Group LLC, which is majority-owned by Italy’s Fiat SpA, had said that the Jeeps are among the safest vehicles of their era. It accused NHTSA of holding the company to a new standard for fuel tank strength.

Chrysler moved gas tanks on the Grand Cherokee in front of the rear axle in 2005, and did the same thing with the Liberty in 2007.

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