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Jeep Rocked by Fire, Rollover Concerns

Autos: DaimlerChrysler unit recalls 1.1 million SUVs and acknowledges redesigning new Liberty after it flips in tests.

April 17, 2002|TERRIL YUE JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DETROIT — DaimlerChrysler's Jeep unit suffered another black eye Tuesday in announcing it is recalling 1.1 million Jeep sport utility vehicles because of an engine problem that could result in fires.

Jeep also said it began building its Liberty SUV at a lower height this month, partly in response to driving tests by two auto enthusiast magazines, one of which said it flipped over a Liberty during a driving test.

The moves were the latest blows to Jeep, considered the jewel of DaimlerChrysler's American brands, which recently recalled 1.6million SUVs over concerns they could slip into reverse gear.

"Overall I think Jeep is in a pretty exposed position," said George Peterson, president of AutoPacific, an automotive consulting firm in Tustin.

Chrysler will recall 2000-2002 Jeep Wranglers, 2000-2001 Jeep Cherokees and 1999-2002 Jeep Grand Cherokees with 4.0-liter engines "as a preventive measure--to reduce the possibility of debris accumulation in the engine compartment that could potentially cause a fire," the auto maker said.

There have been no accidents or injuries related to the engine issue, it said.

Chrysler said it determined that a design change made to the engine manifolds modified the under-hood airflow, which could lead to debris accumulation in the engine compartment.

It said it would attach a shield in the manifold area to prevent such accumulation.

The recall notice came the same day Chrysler said it was building the all-new Liberty SUV, introduced to the market a year ago, about an inch lower in the front and three-quarters of an inch lower in the rear by shortening the springs and adjusting other suspension parts, including the shocks.

In November, AutoWeek magazine said a Liberty rolled over during a sharp zigzag driving test at about 40 mph. German magazine Auto Bild said in December that its tests showed the Liberty had uncertain handling and should be recalled.

Chrysler maintained that both tests were too severe and did not reflect actual driving conditions.

But regarding the magazines' claims, "certainly that's a factor" in re-engineering the height of the Liberty, Chrysler spokesman Rick Deneau said.

But he said the height adjustment also was prompted by owners seeking more "on-road refinement." The height adjustment could bring about an improved rollover rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Deneau said.

The Liberty currently rates two stars out of a possible top score of five stars.

The Liberty went on sale last April. About 100,000 were sold last year and nearly 35,000 in the first quarter of this year. It has been one of the few vehicles to sell without incentives.

Chrysler has no plans to recall the Liberty, a move criticized by Clarence Ditlow, president of the Center for Auto Safety in Washington.

"The Liberty clearly should be recalled. It's already been demonstrated in reporters' tests that it can tip over," Ditlow said.

"It's just a matter of time before it rolls over in the hands of consumers. Any time you have a lowering of a vehicle in the middle of a model year, it shows an urgent need to change it for all consumers."

Jeep is "at risk" given the spate of quality issues it has faced recently, AutoPacific's Peterson said.

Chrysler recalled 1.6 million Jeep Grand Cherokees in February to fix transmissions that accidentally slipped into reverse from park, causing a series of accidents that killed at least five people and injured more than 150.

"Jeep participated in the heyday of the SUV market, but they have not kept their products as fresh or as new and that has come on to hit them square in the face," Peterson said. "Jeep was able to compete very successfully when there were 30 to 35 SUVs in the market. Now there are upward of 50.

"It really has to do with how they handle the recalls. If they do them quickly and aggressively with a lot of goodwill attached, and if they face up to the problem and correct it, then they'll be OK. If they hide their head and say this isn't happening, then their credibility going to be damaged and image going to be hurt."

DaimlerChrysler shares rose $2.62 to $47.40 on the New York Stock Exchange.

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