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DaimlerChrysler Recalls 600,000 Dodge Trucks

Bowing to pressure from federal safety regulators, DaimlerChrysler AG (DCX) said Friday it is recalling 600,000 Dodge Durango SUVs and Dakota pickup trucks because of a defect that can cause their wheels to fall off.

The recall affects four-wheel drive vehicles from the 2000-2003 model years. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (search) recommended the recall after a 16-month investigation revealed that the vehicles' upper ball joints could fail. If that happens, the suspension can collapse and a wheel can fall off.

DaimlerChrysler also is extending the warranty to 10 years or 100,000 miles on the suspension upper ball joints on an additional 400,000 Durango front-wheel sport utility vehicles and Dakota front-wheel pickups from model years 2000 to 2003. NHTSA didn't request a recall of the front-wheel versions, but DaimlerChrysler wanted to include those customers by extending their warranties, Chrysler Group spokesman Max Gates said.

NHTSA announced a separate recall Friday of 2004 Durangos because a cable can short-circuit and cause a fire under the hood. There are 71,763 vehicles involved in that recall.

On Thursday, after word spread that NHTSA was requesting a recall, DaimlerChrysler acknowledged a problem with the ball joints but didn't believe it warranted a safety recall. DaimlerChrysler says there have been no reported injuries due to the defect that have been substantiated by the company. There also are no injuries due to ball joint failures listed in NHTSA's files.

Gates said owners would hear noises before a ball joint failed.

The automaker will repair vehicles for free starting next month. It costs between $750 and $1,200 to replace the ball joint, depending on the dealer and the area, according to a lawsuit filed against DaimlerChrysler by Durango owners in North Carolina. DaimlerChrysler said it will reimburse owners who already paid for the repair.

When NHTSA opened its investigation in July 2003, there were 28 complaints about upper ball joint failure and five reports of crashes. NHTSA spokeswoman Liz Neblett couldn't provide updated numbers Friday.

Some Dodge dealers were deluged with calls from worried Durango and Dakota owners Friday after news media reports of the problem. By afternoon, Ourisman Dodge in Alexandria, Va., had gotten 20 telephone calls, service manager Oscar Chavez said. Chavez said he was forwarding calls to DaimlerChrysler.

The frenzy over the Durango offered an unusual glimpse into the auto recall process. NHTSA often sends letters recommending a recall, but the letters aren't usually publicized. The agency then works with automakers to determine when the recall will take place.

In most cases, the recommendation is enough to spark a recall. The agency has taken automakers to court to force recalls only nine times in its 34-year history, Neblett said. The last court action that resulted in a recall was in 1979, when NHTSA forced Fiat to recall vehicles because of a rust problem.

DaimlerChrysler recalled the 2002-2003 Durango and Dakota pickups earlier this year because their windshield wipers were defective. That recall involved 320,188 vehicles.

While a recall of 600,000 vehicles is substantial, it's not the largest in the industry this year. In March, General Motors Corp. announced it was recalling nearly 4 million trucks because their tailgates could fall off.