Fiat Chrysler Automobiles is once again issuing a recall for several makes, models, and years of SUVs and minivans in its fleet, but so far the defect in question hasn't injured the people driving these affected vehicles.
Let's take a closer look at what's happening.
Who Makes This Product?
Anyone who glances at the news in general is quite familiar with Fiat Chrysler Auto (which for brevity I'll call FCA). Through various mergers and acquisitions over the years, FCA now owns auto companies Abarth (an Italian automaker with little U.S. presence), Alfa Romeo, Chrysler, Dodge, Fiat, Fiat Professional, Jeep, Lancia (another mostly-unknown Italian firm), Maserati, and Ram Trucks.
We don't see a lot of Fiat's Italian automobili cruising through American streets, but thanks to the company's complete takeover of Chrysler Automotive in 2014 we have Fiat to thank for all the Jeeps and Dodges listed in the current recall.
Which Products Are Affected?
According to FCA this recall affects mostly Jeep SUVs with a light smattering of minivans thrown in. The affected makes, models, and years are as follows:
- 2018 to 2019 Jeep Compass SUVs manufactured March 17 - June 21
- 2019 Jeep Cherokee SUVs manufactured April 4 - June 21
- 2018 to 2019 Dodge Grand Caravan minivans manufactured April 11 - June 14
- 2018 Dodge Journey SUVs manufactured April 12 - June 14
In a way it's a testament to the efficient nature of the auto industry that they managed to crank out so many vehicles in such a relatively short period--the timeframe in which the defective ones were made is only four months or so, and yet over 150,000 units are now subject to FCA's recall. Of course, any awe one might feel at the awesome industrial capability on display must be tempered by the thought that potentially-deadly defects are baked into each one of those units.
What's Wrong With The Product?
FCA says that these vehicles' rear brake-caliper pistons "may have an insufficient coating." If that's true, it could create an opportunity for gas pockets to form in the brake fluid. That may not sound like too bad a thing, but bubbles definitely don't belong there and could potentially reduce rear brake performance, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). It wouldn't completely stop the brakes from working, but FCA explained (very politically) that "stopping distances may be increased."
It doesn't take a terribly creative imagination to picture the awkward surprising of increasing a vehicle's stopping distance--unbeknownst to its driver until it's too late.
How Widespread is the Problem?
FCA's projection seems extremely precise as recalls go; its current count of vehicles that need some TLC is 154,337 SUVs and minivans. Hopefully that number is concrete, but other recent recalls (Takata airbags being the prime example) have revised their estimates repeatedly as more trouble reports come in.
That projected number seems unlikely to fluctuate--not just because it's so precise already, but because the company seems to have tracked down the root of the problem to a part they applied only to certain models for a few short months. Production numbers can be reviewed and tracked to determine how many units need to be fixed, which no doubt is how Fiat came up with a number exact to its single digits.
Another benefit to the affected vehicles being so "hot off the presses" is that many of them haven't left their respective dealers' lots yet. Fiat says that "as many as a third" of the affected cars haven't yet been driven away from the dealerships they were delivered to.
I have to assume they're pushing that appraisal as far as they dare to reduce customer and investor concerns, and "as many as" gives them a decent amount of wiggle room. Still, if the number of affected vehicles on the road is closer to 100,000 than it is 150,000, that's better for everyone.
What Should Owners of the Product Do?
The formal recall process is expected to start on September 23, but the sooner the defect can be fixed the better. For more information on the recall specifics you can check the NHTSA's campaign reference 18V-523 or FCA's recall ID U86.
If you aren't sure whether your vehicle is part of this or other recalls, you can search for your car's Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) on the NHTSA's website.
In the meantime anyone driving one of the mentioned models is encouraged to get in touch with FCA at (800) 853-1403 or contact their local dealer. When they take it for service, the dealer will bleed and refill the vehicle's brake fluid system. That should remove any air bubbles that might have made their way into the fluid. Presumably while the vehicle's in the shop any faulty "coating" on the caliper pistons will be replaced so that no new bubbles can enter the replacement fluid.
Consumers Expect more from Fiat.
On one hand, Fiat caught this defect before it could do any harm to its customers, and that's great. Obviously, it'd be best if nobody ends up hurt by surprisingly squishy brakes in their Jeeps or minivans, and FCA is doing what it can to get the word out and get the problem solved to achieve precisely that end.
On the other hand, once again this issue should never have come up in the first place. I end up writing that basically every time this problem comes up, but it never stops being true. I know I'm not an engineer or a captain of industry, but the principle I keep coming back to isn't one they realistically can ignore: Don't skimp on labor, materials, or quality control--especially if the defective product could end up lethal.
The flaw is blamed on a "out-of-specification" coating that three different assembly plants used before the defect was caught a few months later. For what it's worth, I don't think FCA popped these faulty pistons into their cars intentionally. If it's not on purpose then it's by accident, though, which means they or their subsidiaries were negligent. In this case that negligence could mean that a hundred thousand people don't know their cars will take a greater distance to stop than they should. There's a lot of opportunity there for serious harm.
No matter how proactive this recall may appear, it's worth remembering that it's actually a reaction to an existing failure at several points along FCA's manufacturing chain. The powder coating was made "out of specification" (which I read as "incorrectly"), then applied despite its deficiency to the brake caliper pistons. The pistons then were installed into the brake systems, which subsequently were put into the larger works of the new vehicles. At no point in this chain (which I'm sure I oversimplified) was the defect caught, so it was replicated over 150,000 times. Quality assurance should be conducted by the manufacturer before soggy brakes have a chance to ruin anyone's day on the road.
I don't enjoy calling Fiat out again, but goodness knows their name comes up a lot in automotive recall news. Between seat belts, wiring, software, and airbags, Fiat's becoming kind of a four-letter word these days, and it's dragging down Chrysler's reputation along with it. That's not to say the company intentionally puts dangerous vehicles out on the streets, but it seems to indicate a certain blasé attitude toward the quality of the parts that go into their vehicles overall. I suggest they check the parts their affiliates make more carefully instead of rubber-stamping their approval.