Better Consumer Protection in China?

China may be better known for afflicting consumers with shoddy products than protecting them from shoddy products, but if you own a newish Jeep Wrangler, apparently you’re better off if your vehicle is registered in Beijing rather than Boston.

In November 2011, the Chinese government strongly suggested that Chrysler recall its 2008 – 2010 Jeep Wrangler models because the skid plate and exhaust configuration allowed debris to collect in the undercarriage of the vehicle while off- roading, allowing the catalytic converter to ignite the dried grass. The recommendation came after consumers filed three fire complaints in the month of October alone. Chrysler tried to argue that only the 2010 MY Wrangler possessed uniquely defective underbody conditions, but the Chinese government lit a fire under the automaker to recall the 2008 and 2009 model years as well. Owners of those Jeep Wranglers got the skid plate replaced by the new skid bar, which didn’t allow debris to accumulate.

So what happens if you are Rob Pyrock of Charlotte, North Carolina, and the owner of a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon? You don’t know anything about the Chinese Wrangler recall, but two months later, your Wrangler vehicle catches fire after a trip across a meadow, according to some fine reporting by WCNC’s Bill McGinty.

Although Chrysler duly reported the Chinese recall to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in later November, it explained that although “the design of the 2010 MY JK Wrangler is similar globally, the rate of underbody fires, which could have been caused by the accumulation of combustible debris, among 2010 MY JK Wrangler vehicles is higher in the China market than in the United States.” Chrysler did not happen to mention what the rates were in either country, according to its defect information report to the agency.

If you own a Jeep Wrangler in the U.S., you’d have to wait until March 28, 2012 for NHTSA to catch on that underbody fires were afflicting the substantially similar vehicles in the U.S. That’s when the Office of Defects Investigations opened a Preliminary Evaluation, after fielding eight fire complaints dating back to October 2010. But the ink was barely dry on ODI’s information request, when Chrysler announced on May 8 that it was recalling 68,000 MY 2010 Jeep Wranglers to get the same remedy that Jeep owners in China got – although U.S. owners of the 2008 and 2009 were out of luck.

Chrysler explained it this way: After the NHTSA investigation got Chrysler’s attention, the automaker attributed “an elevated level of fire events on certain 2010 model year Wrangler vehicles, “to a design change of the exhaust system” which “resulted in less than optimal clearances between the exhaust catalyst and the automatic transmission skid plate.”  According to Chrysler, beginning in mid-July 2010, Wranglers were built with a skid bar to reduce weight, which also made it harder for debris to collect and ignite into an underbody fire. Chrysler knew of 14 complaints in 2010 MY Wranglers catching fire in the area of the skid plate.

A look at Jeep Wrangler fire complaints to NHTSA and in Wrangler forums, however, raises concerns about the true genesis of these fires. Some owners swear that their Jeeps caught fire, even though they had never left the asphalt.

Questions, questions, questions.

The Preliminary Evaluation remains open, so perhaps ODI might inquire:

Is burning grass the only cause of new Jeep fires?

Was the MY 2010 Wrangler skid plate/catalytic converter configuration unique to that model year only?

How come it took ODI five months to investigate, when three quarters of the complaints cited occurred before or immediately after the Chinese recall?  And while we’re asking questions, why hasn’t Chrysler been fined for failing to file a defect report in the U.S. within five days of initiating a foreign recall for the same vehicle, with the same alleged defect and the same remedy – as required?

Could the Chinese have better auto safety enforcement than the U.S.?