By Tom Costello Correspondent
NBC News
updated 12/10/2004 7:23:51 PM ET 2004-12-11T00:23:51

After earlier saying a problem with wheels falling off some of its most popular vehicles was not significant enough to warrant a recall, DaimlerChrysler on Friday reversed itself — and said it is in fact recalling some of its most popular vehicles, the Durango SUV and the Dakota pickup.

The recall order affects 600,000 vehicles. DaimlerChrysler tells NBC News it agreed to the government's recall request after reviewing dozens of cases where a front wheel fell off.

"We don't like our customers in any type of a panic mode," says Jason Vines of DaimlerChrysler. "And from what we were hearing at the dealer level, customers were upset."

But on Thursday, the company said the issue "doesn't rise to the level of a safety defect."

The problem has been under investigation for a year. The upper ball joint can come apart, causing the vehicle's suspension to collapse and the wheel to fall off.

It happened to Tina Czech of Massachusetts. With two small children in her 2000 Durango, she was trying to turn into a parking lot, just before getting onto an expressway.

"It wasn't making any unusual noises," says Czech. "I was driving along, and the wheel fell off."

Consumer advocates had been demanding a recall.

"There's an instance where a woman almost lost her baby and had her neck broken when this happened. I mean, this is not a small problem," says Joan Claybrook, spokesperson for Public Citizen.

Both the Dakota and the Durango are assembled at a plant in Kokomo, Ind. The parts are made in another plant.

The company says it will now recall all the models made in 2000, 2001, 2002, and 2003, extend the warranties on 2004 models ball joints, and reimburse customers who've had to pay for repairs.

As recalls go, 600,000 is not particularly large. Past recalls have included up to 8 million vehicles. But for DaimlerChrysler, which has so far enjoyed a good year, the recall will be expensive.

"Even if you calculated at $100 per truck a recall, you're still looking at something like $60 million to fix all these trucks and get them back out in the hands of consumers," says Angus Mackenzie, the editor-in-chief of Motor Trend magazine.

There were other recalls Friday as well. Honda recalled its CRV after a series of fires linked to its oil filter seals. And Ford is recalling 474,000 Escape SUVs because of an accelerator problem.

While Daimler Chrysler insists it was not backtracking or caving in to public outrage, Tina Czech says the company has already waited too long.

"Them sweeping this under the rug could have cost one of my children an injury or worse," she says.

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