Government upgrades investigation of 2002-2003 Jeep Liberty

By: By KEN THOMAS
By: By KEN THOMAS


WASHINGTON (AP) -- The government has upgraded an investigation into Chrysler LLC's Jeep Liberty following reports of drivers losing control of their sport-utility vehicles.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it has received 22 complaints of the upper ball joint separating on either of the front wheels. The problem can lead to the front wheel collapsing, which can disable the vehicle or cause the driver to lose control.

The investigation involves more than 300,000 2002 and 2003 model year Liberty 4X4 SUVs.

Max Gates, a Chrysler spokesman, said Monday the automaker was continuing its investigation. Chrysler has received 74 complaints, but no reports of any accidents or injuries tied to the problem.

Most of the drivers who filed complaints have said the joints separated at speeds of under 20 miles per hour, according to NHTSA. But the government said it received five complaints of the separations happening at speeds of 40 mph or more, including one at 75 mph.

Seven of the separations occurred while the driver was pulling into the flow of traffic and two others happened while the driver was trying to make a left-hand turn across the flow of traffic.

One of the drivers who filed a complaint said they almost got hit by an oncoming truck. Another driver said the front right wheel collapsed while making a turn, causing the vehicle to swerve into a ditch and narrowly missing striking a telephone pole.

NHTSA has upgraded the investigation to an engineering analysis to "assess the scope, frequency and safety consequences of the alleged defect," the agency said in a report on its Web site.

The issue has caused problems for the Liberty before.

Chrysler recalled more than 800,000 Liberty SUVs in August 2006 to fix the front suspension lower ball joint, which could experience excessive wear and looseness. The recall affected Liberty SUVs from the 2002-2006 model years.

Previously, in November 2003, the automaker recalled more than 300,000 2002-2003 Liberty vehicles because of problems with the lower ball joint, but some of the parts were damaged during the shipping process or installation.

In a March 14 letter to NHTSA, Chrysler said publicity from the two recalls may have led to an increase in the number of complaints about the ball joints, along with confusion about the differences between the lower and upper ball joints.

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On the Net:

Jeep: http://www.jeep.com

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