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By Paul A. Eisenstein

Confused owners of Fiat Chrysler vehicles are inundating dealers and factory phone lines with questions about the automaker’s buy-back program, part of a settlement with the federal government over mishandled recalls announced over the weekend.

Under the complex consent decree, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) agreed to pay a record fine and buy back a select group of recent truck models with suspension problems while offering discounts to owners who might want to trade in older Jeeps facing recall. (You can read the entire consent decree and find more background information on the government's safercar.gov website.)

The consent order created plenty of confusion among owners, leaving many wondering if they qualify for one of the deals. If you’re in that state, here’s some help in figuring out if you qualify for one of these programs, and what to do even if you don’t.

First, a bit of background: The consent decree was worked out in the wake of an unprecedented July 2 hearing that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) held to look at how FCA handled 23 separate recalls. It found the maker frequently delayed responding to safety problems, contrary to federal law. And even when it did order a recall, the feds questioned why repair rates often were so low and slow.

As part of the settlement, Fiat Chrysler promised to improve its safety practices – and agreed to the appointment of an independent observer to make sure that happens. The carmaker will pay up to a record $105 million in fines and penalties. The most confusing part of the deal involved trade-in incentives and a broad buy-back program, both meant to get defective vehicles off the road.

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The first step for an owner of a Fiat Chrysler vehicle – including Chrysler, Dodge, Fiat, Jeep and Ram brands – is to find the VIN, or Vehicle Identification Number. It’s on the registration slip, and also can be found on a metal tag at the base of the windshield on the driver’s side.

As the recent hearing underscored, many owners have missed or ignored recalls that might affect the safety of their vehicles. So now is a good time to see if you need to schedule a service appointment, even if you’re not directly covered by the consent order. You can check by going to either the Chrysler website or NHTSA’s recall search tool, at www.safercar.gov.

It’s a bit trickier to determine if you qualify for the buy-back program, which covers three separate recalls, and a group of pickup trucks and a couple SUV models with suspension problems that could lead to a sudden and unexpected loss of steering control. Some initial news reports were misleading, suggesting as many as 500,000 or more vehicles would be included. The actual number is likely to be less than 200,000, according to documents FCA has filed with the NHTSA.

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A key point: if you’ve already had repair work done under the initial recall, you don’t qualify for the buy-back.

And if you are eligible, you can still choose to have repairs made instead of trading your vehicle in. In fact, FCA plans to repair vehicles it buys back and then resell them.

With that in mind, here is a list of the models eligible for the buy-back:

  • 2008-2012 Dodge Ram 1500;
  • 2008-2012 Dodge Ram 2500;
  • 2008-2012 Dodge Ram 3500;
  • 2008-2012 Dodge Ram 4500;
  • 2008-2012 Dodge Ram 550;
  • 2009 Chrysler Aspen;
  • 2009 Dodge Durango;
  • 2009-2011 Dodge Dakota.

Meanwhile, owners of Jeep Grand Cherokees sold between model-years 1999 to 2004 will be offered a gift card of $100 if they bring their vehicles in for inspection to see if they need to be repaired under recalls included in the consent order. Separately, owners of Jeep Grand Cherokees sold between the 1993 and 1998 model-years may qualify for a $1,000 “trade-in incentive” above the fair-market value of the vehicle. As with the buy-back program, only those who have not yet had repairs made qualify for the incentive.

While the Jeep trade-in incentive can only be used to buy a new FCA vehicle, there are no restrictions on the money owners receive through the buy-back program. They can buy a new truck or FCA vehicle, go to a different manufacturer, or simply pocket the cash.

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As to how much money an owner might receive under the buy-back program, the consent order stated that FCA must "refund the purchase price paid by the first purchaser of the vehicle for purposes other than resale, less a reasonable allowance for depreciation, and not including the cost of modifications made to the vehicle after the first retail sale.” To sweeten the deal, a 10 percent premium will be factored into the initial purchase price.

Specific details are being worked out and, under the consent order, FCA has about two months to finalize its plans and then contact owners who qualify. But it has already set up a phone line for those who don’t want to wait: 1-800-853-1403.

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