DETROIT — After initially defying regulators, Chrysler agreed Tuesday to recall some older Jeeps with fuel tanks that could rupture and cause fires in rear-end collisions.
But the recall, which came in an 11th-hour deal between the automaker and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, covers only 1.56 million of the 2.7 million Jeeps the government wanted repaired. By giving in to government pressure, Chrysler sidesteps a showdown that could have led to public hearings with witnesses providing details of deadly crashes. The dispute could have landed in court and hurt Chrysler’s image and finances.
The deal still leaves some Jeep owners with gas tanks that regulators just two weeks ago said were risky. Chrysler maintains they are safe.
Earlier this month, the automaker refused a request to recall Jeep Grand Cherokees from model years 1993 through 2004 and Jeep Libertys from 2002 through 2007.
The safety agency contends the gas tanks can rupture if hit from the rear. It said a three-year investigation showed 51 people died in fiery crashes in Jeeps with gas tanks positioned behind the rear axle.
Chrysler will recall 1.56 million Libertys from 2002 through 2007 and Grand Cherokees from 1993 through 1998. If they don’t have factory or Chrysler ‘‘Mopar’’ trailer hitches, dealers will install them. The hitches bolt to the frame and help protect the gas tank.
About 1.2 million Grand Cherokees from 1999 to 2004 will be part of a ‘‘customer service action.’’ Owners will get notices saying their vehicles are fine if they have factory or Chrysler trailer hitches. Dealers will inspect other trailer hitches to make sure they’re secure. But if the Jeeps don’t have trailer hitches, Chrysler won’t do anything; it says the Jeeps are safe and do not need any changes.
In a letter to Chrysler dated June 3, the safety agency said that all of the Jeeps should be recalled.
‘‘The defects present an unreasonable risk to motor vehicles,’’ the letter said, ‘‘because people . . . have burned to death in rear impact crashes.’’