WASHINGTON -- Chrysler rejected Tuesday a U.S. safety agency's request to recall up to 2.7 million Jeep sport utility vehicles to fix a risk of engine fires that have left dozens dead.
The automaker said it had received a letter from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration requesting it to recall Jeep Grand Cherokees in model years 1993-2004 and the Jeep Liberty from model years 2002-2007.
But "the company does not agree with NHTSA's conclusions and does not intend to recall the vehicles cited in the investigation. The subject vehicles are safe and are not defective," Chrysler said.
In its letter to Chrysler dated June 3, the NHTSA said an investigation begun a year ago came to a "tentative" conclusion that the fuel tank's placement behind the rear axle in the SUVs raises safety risks.
"This investigation revealed numerous fire-related deaths and injuries, fires that did not result in deaths and fuel leaks in rear impacts," the agency said.
The NHTSA said fatal rear-impact fires caused the death of 44 people in the Cherokee and seven in the Liberty.
Chrysler insisted the agency's conclusions were "based on an incomplete analysis of the underlying data."
"All of us remain committed to continue working with NHTSA to provide information confirming the safety of these vehicles," said Sergio Marchionne, chief executive of Chrysler.
A Chrysler spokesman said "about 21" deaths occurred in rear impacts "where fire was the most harmful event."
"Other numbers may include other-type accidents not related to this investigation," he said.
The NHTSA said its recall recommendation "does not constitute a formal finding or conclusion" that the vehicles have a safety-related defect. But the automaker is required to provide the agency with a full explanation of its decision.
If the two sides still disagree on the issue, the NHTSA can hold a public hearing and, if it concludes that a safety-related defect does exist, it can order a recall.
The regulator said late Tuesday that it hopes Chrysler "will reconsider its position and take action to protect its customers and the driving public."
"Our data shows that these vehicles may contain a defect that presents an unreasonable risk to safety, which is why we took the next step of writing Chrysler," it said.
"The driving public should know that NHTSA is actively investigating this issue."
"Chrysler must feel like it has a compelling reason to take such a bold stand," said Michelle Krebs, an analyst at Edmunds.com. "Since Toyota was publicly humiliated for dragging its feet on recalls just a few years ago, automakers have been quick to recall vehicles at NHTSA's request."
Krebs said that "unfortunately, consumers with problematic Jeeps are in limbo" as they wait for the process to run its course.
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2013