NHTSA asks for Liberty, Grand Cherokee recall. Jeep says 'no.'

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration asked Jeep to recall 2.7 million vehicles due to a potentially dangerous design issue in some Grand Cherokee and Liberty models. But Jeep pushed back saying the risk of an incident was too small. That isn't sitting well with consumers, according to a new survey.

Gene J. Puskar/AP/File
A Jeep logo on the grill of a Jeep Wrangler is shown at the 2013 Pittsburgh Auto Show in Pittsburgh.

Last week, Jeep did something very, very unusual: when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration asked the automaker to recall 2.7 million vehicles due to a potentially dangerous design issue, Jeep said "No".

According to one market research firm, that refusal isn't playing too well in Peoria -- or anywhere else that Jeep customers live. 

GAS TANK TROUBLE

NHTSA claims that the 1993-2004 Grand Cherokee and 2002-2007 Liberty are unsafe because their fuel tanks are located behind the rear axle -- a serious problem that has resulted in fuel leaks and fires in other vehicles like the Ford Pinto. The Grand Cherokee might be particularly at risk due to its ride height, which makes it easier for small cars and other vehicles to reach and rupture the tank during collisions.

According to NHSTA, the design flaw could be responsible for up to 44 deaths in the Grand Cherokee and another seven in the Liberty. 

Jeep doesn't necessarily dispute the death claims, but insists that the reported fires aren't unusual. In a statement, Jeep said, "Our analysis shows the incidents, which are the focus of [NHTSA's] request, occur less than once for every million years of vehicle operation.... This rate is similar to comparable vehicles produced and sold during the time in question." 

And so, Jeep stood its ground. In fact, the company said quite clearly that "The company does not agree with NHTSA’s conclusions and does not intend to recall the vehicles cited in the investigation".

The pushback was so rare that it became front-page news across the U.S. And as it turns out, consumers were paying attention.

PUBLIC PERCEPTION

YouGov is a marketing firm that interviews 5,000 people in the U.S. every weekday. Through those interviews, the company follows customer perception on a range of brands, assigning scores on its own "BrandIndex" scale that run from -100 (extremely negative) to 100 (extremely positive).

Jeep wasn't faring too well on the BrandIndex scale before the recall debacle -- at least not as well as other automakers. Still, its score of 10 bested that of its parent, Chrysler, which earned a 7.

As you'll see from the graph above, things changed dramatically after Jeep publicly announced that it wouldn't recall the Grand Cherokee or the Liberty. As the story hit the headlines, consumers' opinion of Jeep plummeted from positive to negative territory, going from 10 to -6 on the BrandIndex chart. That's the lowest score Jeep has received since June of 2009. Chrysler took a lighter hit, falling to just around 1. 

How long will it be before Jeep recovers? It's hard to say in cases like these -- though the graph seems to indicate that things could get worse before they get better.

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