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Feds open investigation into Jeep Wrangler, Chevy Cruze fires

April 2, 2012
Jeep Wrangler Fires NHTSA
Jeep Wrangler Fires NHTSA

U.S. auto safety regulators on Sunday opened two separate probes involving fires in 2010 Jeep Wranglers and 2011 Chevrolet Cruzes. In both cases, a handful of owners say the vehicles burst into flame with little or no warning, like the Wrangler shown above. While two reports of Cruze fires happened within the past month, the eight Wrangler cases date back to last October -- and even then, had to be revealed by Jalopnik before federal officials acted. What took regulators so long to get worried about Wranglers randomly catching fire?

Because vehicles catch fire all the time, and when not in an accident, the causes often perish with the vehicle. The National Fire Protection Association places the number of vehicle fires in the United States at 184,500 in 2010 -- an astonishing figure, but also the lowest since the agency started tracking vehicle fires in 1980. Most were due to crashes, but people who report non-crash fires to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration can find their complaint lost in the thousands of similar reports NHTSA receives a year.

NHTSA has a screening system that's supposed to alert regulators to potential defects from consumer reports, but there's no hard guidelines for when a defect investigation should be launched. Many probes into defects linked to vehicle fires didn't start until NHTSA had more than 10 reports; other cases began with only one or two. And automakers often contend -- as Jeep has with the Wrangler -- that poor maintenance by customers may play as much of a role as anything in the vehicle.

GM and Chrysler pledged to cooperate with NHTSA, as they always do. Both automakers now have several weeks to report back to the agency on how many similar complaints they have and any potential explanation.

Photo: Sean Heiney via Twitter