DETROIT — After initially defying federal regulators, Chrysler abruptly agreed Tuesday to recall some older-model Jeeps with fuel tanks that could rupture and cause fires in rear-end collisions.
But the recall, which came in an 11th-hour deal between the automaker and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, covers only 1.56 million of the 2.7 million Jeeps that the government wanted repaired. The rest are part of a "customer service action" and many may not get fixed.
By giving in to government pressure, Chrysler sidesteps a showdown with NHTSA that could have led to public hearings with witnesses providing details of deadly crashes. The dispute could have landed in court and hurt Chrysler's image and its finances.
Yet the deal still leaves some Jeep owners with gas tanks that NHTSA just two weeks ago said were risky. Chrysler maintains that they are safe and need no repairs.
Earlier this month, the automaker publicly refused the government's request to recall Jeep Grand Cherokees from model years 1993 through 2004 and Jeep Libertys from 2002 through 2007.
NHTSA, the U.S. agency that monitors vehicle safety, contends the Jeep gas tanks can rupture if hit from the rear, spilling gas and causing a fire. NHTSA said a three-year investigation showed 51 people had died in fiery crashes in Jeeps with gas tanks positioned behind the rear axle.
Chrysler had until Tuesday to formally respond to NHTSA, but the deal made the response unnecessary.
Here's how the recall will work, according to Chrysler:
— The company will recall 1.56 million Libertys from 2002 through 2007 and Grand Cherokees from 1993 through 1998. If they don't have factory or Chrysler "Mopar" trailer hitches, dealers will install them. The heavy metal hitches bolt to the frame and help bolster protection for the gas tank.
— About 1.2 million Grand Cherokees from the 1999 to 2004 model years will be part of the "customer service action." Owners will get notices saying their vehicles are fine if they have factory or Chrysler trailer hitches. Dealers will inspect other trailer hitches to make sure they're secure. But if the Jeeps don't have trailer hitches, Chrysler won't do anything, maintaining that the Jeeps are safe and do not need any changes. A Chrysler spokesman was not sure how many of the SUVs are without trailer hitches.
In a letter to Chrysler dated June 3, NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation told the company all of the Jeeps should be recalled. "The defects present an unreasonable risk to motor vehicles," the letter said, "because people ... have burned to death in rear impact crashes."
NHTSA began investigating the Jeeps at the request of the Center for Auto Safety, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, that also says all the Jeeps should be recalled. "In view of Chrysler's refusal to recall 1999-04 Grand Cherokees, we call on NHTSA to move to an initial determination of a defect in order to force their recall as well," Clarence Ditlow, the center's director, said in a statement late Tuesday.
Ditlow also said NHTSA should test the trailer hitches to make sure they protect the gas tanks.
An agency spokeswoman said Tuesday evening that she was checking into details of the recall.
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 websites.
Erik Gordon, a law and marketing professor at the University of Michigan, said 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," Gordon said.
Chrysler's image will still get dinged a little "because it looks as if they have done the right thing only because they were forced to," he said.
Chrysler executives probably realized their chance for success was slim because courts have given wide latitude to government regulatory agencies, said David Kelly, former acting NHTSA administrator under President George W. Bush.
"They have some very smart people at Chrysler and probably looked into a crystal ball and didn't think this would end the way they wanted it to," Kelly said.
NHTSA said in a statement that it's pleased with Chrysler's decision. The agency plans to keep investigating the issue as it reviews recall documentation from Chrysler.
Ditlow said he is cautiously optimistic that the solution will make the Jeeps safer.
He urged Chrysler to add Jeep Cherokee SUVs from 1993 through 2001 to the recall. The Cherokees are under investigation for the same problem.
Chrysler will begin notifying owners about the recall in about a month, the company said.
The last time an automaker defied a NHTSA recall request was early in 2011, when Ford refused to call back 1.2 million pickup trucks for defective air bags. Ford later agreed to the recall after NHTSA threatened to hold a rare public hearing on the issue.
In a statement on June 4, Chrysler said its review of nearly 30 years of data showed a low number of rear-impact crashes involving fire or a fuel leak in the affected Jeeps.
"The rate is similar to comparable vehicles produced and sold during the time in question," the company said. It also said NHTSA left some similar vehicles out of its investigation.
But NHTSA found at least 32 rear-impact crashes and fires in Grand Cherokees that caused 44 deaths. It also found at least five rear crashes in Libertys that caused seven deaths. The agency calculated that the older Grand Cherokees and Libertys have fatal crash rates that are about double those of similar vehicles. It compared the Jeeps with the Chevrolet S10 Blazer, Ford Explorer, Toyota 4Runner, Isuzu Rodeo, Isuzu Trooper, Mitsubishi Montero, Suzuki Sidekick and Suzuki XL-7.
Among the 51 deaths was Remington "Remi" Walden, a 4-year-old boy from Bainbridge, Georgia, who was killed when a 1999 Grand Cherokee driven by his aunt was hit from behind by a pickup truck in March 2012. The child was on his way to a tennis lesson when the SUV was struck. The fuel tank leaked, engulfing the Jeep in flames and killing the boy, according to a lawsuit filed against Chrysler by his family.
"Numerous witnesses saw Remi struggling to escape and heard him screaming for help," the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit alleges that Chrysler placed the gas tank in a "crush zone" behind the rear axle and knew the location was dangerous, and that the company failed to protect the gas tank against rupturing.
In court papers, Chrysler denied the allegations and said the pickup truck driver's negligence was the sole cause of the boy's injuries.