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Chrysler tells government it can finish recall faster than safety agency has predicted

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DETROIT - Chrysler can fix recalled Jeep SUVs far faster than U.S. safety regulators have predicted, the automaker told the government Wednesday.

The development could end a spat between the automaker and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has accused Chrysler of moving too slowly to repair about 2.7 million SUVs in a recall announced more than a year ago.

The older Jeep Grand Cherokees and Libertys have gas tanks behind the rear axles that can rupture in rear collisions, leak fuel and cause fires. The remedy is to install a trailer hitch to protect the tanks in low-speed collisions.

Although NHTSA has pushed for the recall, Chrysler has maintained the vehicles aren't defective and says it agreed to the trailer hitches because the matter "has raised public concern."

In a tersely worded letter to Chrysler earlier this month, the safety agency demanded that Chrysler answer questions about why the recall is taking so long. The agency said production of the trailer hitches didn't start until May of this year, and the pace is so slow that it will take Chrysler 4.7 years to get enough hitches if all owners respond to the recall. If only half respond, it will take Chrysler two years to get the parts, the letter said.

"The agency has no intention of allowing Chrysler, or any other manufacturer, to delay recall completion to the detriment of safety," the letter said.

NHTSA ordered Chrysler to answer the questions by Wednesday, and the automaker released its response Wednesday night.

It says that the trailer hitch supplier now has additional production capacity and can make enough hitches for the recall by March 21 of next year. The response also says NHTSA over-estimated the number of hitches needed to fix the problem, failing to account for vehicles that already have hitches and for SUVs that are no longer in use.

Chrysler estimates that just under 267,000 hitches will be needed for Grand Cherokees and 579,000 for Libertys.

The recall and a related customer service campaign cover 1993-2004 Grand Cherokees and 2002-2007 Libertys. Chrysler estimates the fixes globally will cost $151 million.

The spat over the recall pace is the latest in a long fight between the automaker and agency over the safety of the SUVs, all built before the 2008 model year. Initially, NHTSA wanted the company to recall 2.7 million of them, but Chrysler refused, saying they were as safe as similar vehicles. They eventually worked a deal to recall 1.56 million, with 1.2 million others placed in a campaign to be inspected for hitches. Last year, NHTSA said a three-year investigation showed 51 people had died in fiery crashes in the Jeeps.

Messages were left Wednesday night seeking comment from NHTSA spokeswomen.

Clarence Ditlow, head of the non-profit Center for Automotive Research, said in a letter to NHTSA earlier this month that the agency should immediately force Chrysler to speed up the recalls. While NHTSA and Chrysler argue, four more people have been killed and two more seriously burned in Jeep fire crashes, according to Ditlow.

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