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Recalled Jeeps can be made safer by March, rather than by 2018: Chrysler

By Bernie Woodall

DETROIT (Reuters) - Chrysler Group LLC told U.S. safety regulators it could add trailer hitches to recalled Jeep SUVs by March, much sooner than the several years estimated by regulators who had urged the automaker to quicken its pace for fixing the affected vehicles.

Chrysler's statement late Wednesday, in a filing with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, comes two weeks after the agency asked for an explanation on why it would take Chrysler so long - until 2018 - to make Jeep SUVs with rear fuel tanks safer by adding the trailer hitches.

In June 2013, NHTSA and Chrysler announced the recall of 1.56 million Jeep SUVs with rear fuel tanks because of an increased risk of fire in the event of a rear-end crash. As of June 2013, NHTSA had counted 51 deaths related to the issue. Affected vehicles were model years 2002-2007 Jeep Liberty and 1993-1998 Grand Cherokee.

In a nine-page response to NHTSA, the company said it was able to get its supplier to ramp up production by paying it for additional robots to make the hitches.

Chrysler said that because many of the older model SUVs were no longer on the road, and as some already had trailer hitches installed, the number needing hitches was much lower than the number of vehicles recalled.

Chrysler, a unit of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles , told NHTSA that the cost of putting trailer hitch assemblies on the recalled SUVs was about $151 million.

Chrysler told NHTSA it estimated that 87.5 percent of the Jeep Liberty SUVs and half of the Grand Cherokee SUVs would be brought to dealers to have the trailer hitches installed.

Since those models were produced, Chrysler has positioned the fuel tanks of its SUVs in front of the rear axle. Their earlier positioning behind the rear axle left them exposed to a greater risk of fire in the event of a rear-end collision, NHTSA told Chrysler when demanding the recall.

Chrysler had initially resisted NHTSA's demand for a recall of the vehicles, but then relented.

In January, NHTSA accepted Chrysler's remedy of installing trailer hitch assemblies on the Jeep SUVs. They are expected to make the vehicles safer in lower-speed crashes by increasing the distance from the rear vehicle.

NHTSA officials could not be immediately reached for comment.

(Reporting by Bernie Woodall in Detroit; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

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