c.2013 New York Times News Service

c.2013 New York Times News Service

DETROIT — A tense standoff between Chrysler and federal regulators over the safety of millions of Jeep sport utility vehicles was resolved in one last high-level phone call.

The call took place Monday between Sergio Marchionne, Chrysler’s chief executive, and David Strickland, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, according to a person with knowledge of the call who spoke on condition of anonymity because the conversation was private.

When it was over Chrysler had agreed to a voluntary campaign, announced Tuesday, to inspect and upgrade 2.7 million Jeeps that the government had claimed were prone to catastrophic fires in rear-end collisions.

The move by Chrysler, the nation’s third-largest automaker behind General Motors and Ford, defused what had become an unusual confrontation between a car company and the nation’s auto-safety agency after Chrysler initially rejected the recall.

It also helped the automaker allay growing concerns from its customers about the safety and quality of its popular Jeep brand of vehicles.

On Monday’s call, Marchionne agreed that Chrysler would voluntarily put trailer hitches on some older-model Jeeps to protect them in the event of rear-end accidents. In return, Marchionne asked that regulators refrain from continuing to describe the vehicles as defective. That was a crucial point for Chrysler, which is seeking to avoid lawsuits generated by the safety agency’s three-year investigation of the Jeeps.

Marchionne’s offer satisfied Strickland, whose agency had recommended in early June that Chrysler recall 1993 to 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees and 2002 to 2007 Jeep Liberty sport utility vehicles. At issue was the placement of fuel tanks, and whether it made the SUVs vulnerable in collisions and prone to gasoline leaks and fires.

“Though the Chrysler data points to no flaws in their vehicles, the voluntary recalls show how important they want the drivers in their vehicles to feel safe,” said Jared Rowe, president of the auto-research firm Kelley Blue Book.

In a statement Tuesday, Chrysler again maintained that the Jeeps are not defective and are among the safest of a group of similar sport utility vehicles made by other manufacturers.

But the company said it now plans to inspect the Jeeps included in the government’s original recall request and install the trailer hitches.

“Chrysler Group will conduct a voluntary campaign with respect to the vehicles in question that, in addition to a visual inspection of the vehicle will, if necessary, provide an upgrade to the rear structure of the vehicle to better manage crash forces in low-speed impacts,” the company said.

The safety agency said in a statement that it was satisfied with the move — without including any comments about whether the vehicles had defects.

“The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s top priority is safety, and the recall of vehicles when supported by our data,” the agency said. “As such, we are pleased that Chrysler has agreed to take action to protect its customers and the driving public.”

The agency also said it would continue its investigation of the Jeeps, including further review of new documents provided by Chrysler.

In its original recall letter to Chrysler in early June, the agency cited 32 rear-impact collisions that caused fatal fires resulting in 44 deaths in Grand Cherokees, and five accidents that resulted in seven deaths in Jeep Libertys.

But rather than agree to the recall, Chrysler aggressively defended the Jeeps. That set off a round of meetings between the company and regulators, comparing how Jeeps fared in crashes with other SUV models.

As late as last week, it appeared that Chrysler would formally refuse the recall by a Tuesday deadline.

The moves announced by Chrysler on Tuesday were a combination of a voluntary safety recall and a “customer service action,” according to Eric Mayne, a company spokesman.

Essentially, the company is planning to install factory-built trailer hitches on Jeeps that don’t already have one. The hitches are somewhat common equipment used to tow a trailer, and have the added benefit of absorbing force when the vehicle is struck from the rear.

Analysts said Chrysler was wise to choose voluntary safety actions over a protracted battle with the government.

“This is probably the right decision by Chrysler,” said Michelle Krebs, an analyst with the automotive site Edmunds.com. “Once the smoke settles, I expect that this will be just a minor blip in Jeep’s history.”