By on April 12, 2011

Over the weekend, Chinadaily [via CarNewsChina] reported that China’s General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine had halted imports of Jeep Wranglers due to what was reported as

fires [caused by] a problem in the vehicles’ automatic transmission and related systems.

And though for some this story’s value may begin and end with the ironic humor value of China recalling unsafe American products, there’s more to this than meets the eye. As it turns out, NHTSA has investigated a suspiciously similar transmission-related fire risk in Wranglers, and made Chrysler fix it. What’s not clear is why China-bound Jeeps don’t appear to have received the upgrade that US regulators required for American-market sales.

According to a Chrysler letter to NHTSA obtained by TTAC [PDF here], an estimated 161,450 Wranglers from model years 2007 and 2008 were recalled towards the end of 2009 in order to address reports of transmission-related fires during off-road driving. In its letter to the US auto safety regulator, Chrysler laid out the following timeline for the recall:

Beginning in October 2008, Chrysler received a report of a failed transmission from an overheat condition that resulted while driving off road.

Subsequent engineering analysis confirmed that while operating a vehicle under rigorous off road conditions, a vehicle’s transmission fluid temperature will elevate.

Exceeding the limits of a vehicle beyond reasonable intended usage over an extended period will cause the transmission fluid to expel, and may allow it to come into contact with a hot exhaust component and cause a fire.

July of 2009, China Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ) initiated contact with Chrysler inquiring about 3 incidents allegedly resulting from transmission fluid overheat (2 determined to be non-related, I unverified not available for inspection).
On September 13,2009, NHTSA’s Office ofDefects Investigation (ODI) opened a Preliminary Evaluation (PE09-037) to investigate allegations of transmission overheat conditions.

An investigation ofJK vehicles concluded that there is no design related defect that would cause the transmission to overheat under normal operating conditions.

Warranty data and field reports support that a small number of transmission warranty is due to an overheat condition caused by extreme and/or abusive driving conditions.

There are only a few field reports alleging transmission failures resulting from elevated temperatures.

The prior Jeep Wrangler (TJ) body style provided a transmission temperature warning lamp.

A warning system to alert the customer when transmission fluid has reached a critical operating temperature would significantly reduce potential for transmission failures.

There has been no reported transmission failures related to overheat during normal operating

Chrysler is not aware of any injuries or fatalities as a result of this condition.

What’s most interesting about this chain of events is that NHTSA opened an investigation in the wake of Chinese government action over the defect, forcing Chrysler to recall and inspect 94,025 Wranglers by the end of last year, some 91,868 of which were repaired [per a Chrysler follow-up filing with NHTSA, in PDF here]. Now, we don’t know exactly what actions Chrysler took to repair imported Wranglers in China, but the fact that none of the three vehicles involved in incidents at the time of the July 2009 investigation were found to have related defects indicates that little or nothing was done to address this issue in the Chinese market.

Here in the US, the fix wasn’t complicated. As Chrysler had admitted, the TJ Wrangler had a transmission temperature warning guage, and this was the “fix” that was agreed upon for the US market. Since there is no way to guarantee safety in all off-road uses, including a warning when transmission temperatures rise makes good sense. Thus, Chrysler told NHTSA that it

will conduct a safety recall to install a “HOTOIL” message in the Instrument Cluster and a chime indicating an elevated transmission fluid condition. Chrysler will also provide owners with an Owner’s Manual Addendum stating the purpose of the “HOTOIL” message and chime along with instructions with a Caution and Warning statements regarding elevated transmission fluid temperature conditions.

So, if all Wranglers built for the US market received an extra light in the dash to warn of elevated transmission temperatures, why are export-market versions (at least for China) not equipped with the same instrument cluster? Would it not ultimately cost more to have two separate instrument assemblies for domestic sales and exports? And surely Chinese regulators would recognize that this fix would allow drivers to avoid any transmission-related fires, so why halt imports? One conspiracy-minded possibility: this could be tied to China’s trade war-motivated accusation of subsidies and dumping by GM and Chrysler.

We will continue to dig into this story to see if, in fact, Jeep builds its export-market Wranglers without the NHTSA-mandated fix built into all US-market Wranglers. If you own an export-market Wrangler from 2007 or later, or if you work on or assemble Wranglers, please share your expertise in the comments section. Though Chrysler isn’t obligated to comply with US regulations for its export-market products, last year’s Toyota recall scandal proved that failing to address safety concerns on a global basis can create huge PR headaches.

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22 Comments on “China Bans Wrangler Imports For Fire Risk: Where’s The Fix?...”

  • avatar

    … or you could just buy a manual transmission.

  • avatar

    how many Wranglers are bought in China each year?  My guess is a pittance, and this will be much more of a PR problem/trade spat than have any real economic consequences. I’ve spent plenty of time in China and have never seen a Wrangler.

  • avatar

    Interestingly, I heard yesterday that the cure for immolating 2011 Durangos was a ‘silent recall’ to address transmission cooling issues.

    • 0 avatar

    • 0 avatar

      Durango uses a much beefier transmission (vs. the Wrangler) that has no history of overheating, so my guess is that either the float was way above the GCWR of the Durango or it was a hose connection not properly installed or possibly even a different fluid altogether.

      Edit: After watching the video closer, the float doesn’t seem that heavy…I’m going with a misassembly issue or possibly even a mistake at the dealer when the vehicle was prepped.

      • 0 avatar

        You forgot user error. Like not putting the oil filler cap back on or not seating the transmission dipstick all the way after checking the fluid level. Drivers are often the cause of their own vehicle problems. The Durnago’s power-train is the same as the Jeep GC. There are thousands of them on the road. If this was an issue with assembly or supplier parts there would be more incidents. This one got great exposure because it was filmed.

      • 0 avatar

        That Durango was supplied by Dodge for PR purposes. It really doesn’t matter what the reason was, although there is the silent recall explanation. It is still Dodge’s fault. If they don’t know how to service or use their own truck, why would anyone else take a chance on it?

  • avatar

    Chrysler is trying to dethrone Ford as Spontaneous Combustion King.

  • avatar

    Sales of the home-grown, aesthetically-identical, mechanically distinct “Dongfeng Wangle” continue unabated.

  • avatar

    What is it with Italian cars and spontaneous combustion? Fiery latin trait?

  • avatar

    As far as I can tell the recall was simply a software update. There is no separate instrument cluster or lamp installed. The “HOTOIL” message displays in the digital odometer. On the forum I am a member of 2011 JK owners are also reporting that the automatic transmission skid plate was replaced with a skid bar; apparently to aid in transmission cooling. 2007 – 2010 autos all had a skid plate from the factory.
    I have a 6-speed manual JK so this isn’t an issue for myself. However last year while me and my fiancee were showing a group of Americans in an automatic 2010 JK around our area they encountered this hot oil message. We were climbing a very steep and winding dirt road, but not extreme, and they certainly weren’t abusive to their Jeep. After a 10 minute wait it cooled down and cleared, I suggested they shift to 4 low and afterwards there was no issue. It would seem it’s not all that difficult to cross this ‘extreme’ temperature threshold.

  • avatar

    Same problem with the flaming DC Cherry Blossom parade 2011 Durango?  How wide ranging a problem is this for Chrysler?

    • 0 avatar

      The 42RLE transmission in the 4,000 lb + Wrangler is severly overworked and as such runs fairly hot. The 545RFE trans in the (Hemi – which it appears this is) Durango is a much beefier unit that doesn’t have any history of overheating issues if properly loaded, i.e. not exceeding the weight rating of the vehicle.

  • avatar


    I’m not surprised at another fine Chrysler product having problems with no fix, as my 2006 Wrangler TJ (along with 2005s) has a flawed ODPA. So far Chrysler’s response to all of us owners is to replace the flawed part with the exact small flawed part (providing it’s caught in time) for two to three times the price. 

    And to think my wife wants a new Grand… Ha! Too bad Honda doesn’t have the Jeep brand (yet).


  • avatar

    Easy if you really want an off roader buy a REAL one stay away from rubbish like Jeep.

  • avatar

    I think any “ironic humor value” here masks a very serious, and quite valid question — How bad does a vehicle have to be for even the ChiComs to turn it away?

    Anyone considering a like-equipped Jeep would be foolish not to ask themselves that, even briefly.

  • avatar

    As far as I know, all this “hard off-road use” story is bogus. What actually happens is that some of 42RLEs simply run hot from the factory. So, a few people got HOTOIL indication just going uphill on a freeway. If you take one of the unlucky trannies to the trail, you can overheat it easily. Chrysler either cannot figure it out, or know and refuse to tell us if any specific lots or subcontractors are linked to bad transmissions. Mine is one of the majority “lucky” ones, I can wheel as hard as I like in New Mexico heat, and nothing happens to it. Ideally Chrysler should’ve replaced bad transmissions, but there is no way to figure out which are which, unless you put each JK on a dino or something. So they devised this HOTOIL mod just so the drivers know when they are screwed. I’m somewhat ambivalent about it. Yes they are cheapscates, but hey… Lemons happen.

    P.S. The annoying part is that if your JK hotoils you on the street, Chrysler won’t swap the tranny, but suggest you to rest at the side of the road. That’s uncool, IMHO.

    • 0 avatar

      Interesting insight, Pete. I assume these don’t have tranny coolers on them?

      Glad to hear yours appears to be one of the lucky ones.

    • 0 avatar

      Rob, 2010 comes with a normal in-radiator heat exchanger (although note that it will not warm up ATF in cold like the out-of-radiator heat exchanger does on Toyotas). The coolers everyone talks about are those that are added in sequence with the existing cooler, usually with an electric fan for crawling application. It’s not like there is no cooler at all, it’s just not enough apparently.

      • 0 avatar

        I’d personally be adding a cooler to any of the vehicles that use this transmission. It doesn’t help that the modern methodology of deliberately “smoothing out” the shifts in the name of customer satisfaction (wouldn’t want to feel those pesky shifts, now would we?) also generates a tremendous amount of heat due to the friction plate slipping technique used to surpress the sensation of shifting.

        This is precisely why modern automatic transmissions scare me from a durability perspective – a clean firm shift is a “cool” shift that generates a minimal amount of heat and unwanted friction, sadly no one seems to want that anymore and for those of us that do, most modern electronic transmissions don’t respond as well to shift kits (they tend to “learn” and compensate to a degree) assuming one is even available. Sigh…welcome to the law of unintended consequences. 

  • avatar

    Don’t drive this vehicle unless your name is Hellboy…

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