DETROIT (Reuters) - U.S. safety regulators have opened an investigation of Chrysler Group's handling of two recalls for potential steering issues affecting nearly 1 million Dodge Ram pickup trucks in the United States.
The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said in documents posted online that it is looking at delays in the availability of replacement parts in two recalls from last year, as well as "poor communications" by Chrysler with the safety agency.
Chrysler, part of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles , said on Monday that it has kept NHTSA officials informed of the recalls' progress and is cooperating in the safety agency's "audit query" of the process.
"Customers have been advised in accordance with the regulations governing recalls," Chrysler spokesman Eric Mayne said in an email statement. "We are continually replenishing our supply of replacement parts. Chrysler Group regrets any inconvenience our customers may have experienced."
Also on Monday, five Fiat Chrysler brands including Ram pickups received low ratings in the annual quality survey by Consumer Reports, taking five of the seven bottom places among the 28 brands included in the results. Those brands are Ram, Jeep, Dodge, Chrysler and Fiat.
Jake Fisher, director of automotive testing at Consumer Reports, said that the U-Connect infotainment system in Chrysler Group models has improved but that system and the company's powertrains are still ranked poorly by the magazine's readers.
Last November, Chrysler announced three recalls affecting 1.2 million light- and heavy-duty Ram Pickup trucks to check for a potential chassis defect that could cause steering problems. It said then that steering tie rods, which might have been misaligned during assembly or service and could fracture, needed to be replaced.
NHTSA opened its probe of two of the recalls, affecting almost 972,000 of the 2003-2012 model-year trucks in the United States, after receiving more than 1,000 consumer complaints about delays in getting replacement parts at Chrysler dealers.
"We have concerns with the administration and execution of these safety recalls and accordingly have opened an investigation to collect further information from Chrysler about the details of administration and execution of these campaigns and the logic that supports the strategies used," NHTSA said in an Oct. 21 letter to the automaker.
Chrysler notified affected owners in December 2013 and said they could start scheduling appointments to have their trucks fixed beginning in January, according to the NHTSA documents. However, consumers complained to NHTSA that they were told it could take several months for the replacement parts to be available.
NHTSA confirmed with Chrysler that there were no issues with the recalls in the initial months, but continued complaints and information from dealers showed there were severe parts restrictions, according to the NHTSA documents. The agency confirmed with Chrysler that the recalls had been suspended while the automaker investigated quality concerns about the parts but the process had resumed.
(Reporting by Ben Klayman and Bernie Woodall in Detroit; Editing by Dan Grebler)