DETROIT - Chrysler abruptly agreed to recall 2.7 million older model Jeeps Tuesday, reversing a defiant stance and avoiding a possible public relations nightmare over fuel tanks that can rupture and cause fires in rear-end collisions.
In deciding on the recall, Chrysler sidestepped a showdown with government safety regulators that could have led to public hearings with witnesses providing details of deadly crashes involving the Jeeps. The dispute ultimately could have landed in court and hurt Chrysler's image and its finances.
The company said calls from customers concerned about the safety of their Jeeps played a part in its going along with the government's request.
Earlier this month, the automaker refused the government's request to recall Jeep Grand Cherokees from model years 1993 through 2004 and Jeep Libertys from 2002 through 2007.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the agency that monitors vehicle safety, contends that the Jeep gas tanks can rupture if hit from the rear, spilling gas and causing a fire. NHTSA said a three-year investigation showed that 51 people had died in fiery crashes in Jeeps with gas tanks positioned behind the rear axle.
Two weeks ago, Chrysler said that the vehicles aren't defective, despite prior statements to the contrary from NHTSA. The company vouched for the vehicles' safety again Tuesday.
Chrysler said 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.
Chrysler Group LLC, which is majority owned by Fiat SpA of Italy, wouldn't say how much the hitches would cost, although they sell for about $200 each on Internet sites.
Erik Gordon, a law and marketing professor at the University of Michigan, says Chrysler realized it was headed for a public relations disaster and decided to reverse course.
"What happened is they get surprised by how loud the hue and cry is. They didn't want to take the public relations hit," Gordon says.