By Bernie Woodall and Deepa Seetharaman
DETROIT (Reuters) - Chrysler Group LLC disputed a decision by U.S. regulators to recall 2.7 million older model Jeep vehicles for safety problems, saying in a statement on Tuesday that the conclusion is based on an "incomplete analysis of the underlying data."
Chrysler, which is majority-owned by Fiat, said it does not intend to recall the SUVs and insisted that they are safe.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration sought to recall the Jeep Grand Cherokee for model years 1993 to 2004 and the Jeep Liberty model years 2002 to 2007. The agency said the models have fuel tanks behind the axle, which leave them less protected in the event of a rear-end collision and could potentially cause a fuel leak and lead to fire in those vehicles.
"The company stands behind the quality of its vehicles," Chief Executive Sergio Marchionne said in a statement. "All of us remain committed to continue working with NHTSA to provide information confirming the safety of these vehicles."
In a June 3 letter sent to Chrysler, NHTSA said its investigation revealed "numerous fire-related deaths and injuries, fires that did not lead to deaths and fuel leaks in rear impacts."
In the 13-page letter, NHTSA said that 51 people have been killed in rear-end crashes and fires involving Grand Cherokee and Liberty vehicles.
NHTSA had no immediate comment on Tuesday regarding Chrysler's resistance to a recall.
Chrysler has until June 18 to formally respond to NHTSA. If Chrysler cannot convince NHTSA to drop the recall request, the safety agency could hold a public hearing on the matter.
Eventually, the administrator of NHTSA may issue a final decision and order Chrysler to conduct a recall. Even after that, Chrysler can challenge that order in federal court. NHTSA can take Chrysler to court to comply with the recall order. And, Chrysler may be forced to send letters to owners of the affected vehicles that it is resisting NHTSA's recall order.
Chrysler has been working with NHTSA on this issue for nearly three years. NHTSA asked for the recall Monday night.
The company said its analysis shows that fuel leaks and fires occur "less than one time for every million years of vehicle operation."
In the past several years, Chrysler has conducted 52 recalls, 49 of which were instigated by the automaker. The last time Chrysler refused to recall a vehicle was in 1997.
It is unusual for automakers to challenge the agency on such safety issues. Toyota Motor Corp initially resisted the recall of its 2010 Prius hybrid for brake problems.
Ford Motor Co recalled its Freestar and Monterey minivans for transmission problems last year after years of haggling with NHTSA.
(Editing by Bernard Orr)