Feds Eye Dodge Durango Problems

2000 Dodge Durango R/T suv, photo

With its sleek and sporty design, the Dodge Durango is one of the most popular SUV's on the road. John Pealor bought one for his wife. It seemed to drive just fine, but, as Mika Brzezinski then the noise started.

"It was a squeak," Pealor says. "Hit a little bump -- WEEK, WEEK! You turn the wheel, same thing."

Not one to take chances, Pealor had his mechanic check it out.

Turns out the 1-year-old car had a worn out upper ball joint - a critical component of the wheel structure. Mechanic Mike Hudgins says, with only 31,000 miles on the vehicle, that's just too soon.

"We very seldom see problems in a ball joint before 100,000 miles," say Hudgins. "It can be dangerous because if you lose control of your tire. ... If that movement got more excessive, you would lose control of your car."

And that's exactly what happened to Monique Conrad.

"It really turned out to be a nightmare," she says.

A news reporter for BET - a Viacom company which also owns CBS - Conrad's 2000 Durango had 31,000 miles on it when she bought it. A few months later the upper ball joints failed. She says she's lucky to be alive.

"My tire along with a piece of metal about a foot long was bouncing across this four-lane road," says Conrad.

Because they were still under warranty, DaimlerChrysler fixed the problem for both Conrad and Pealor. But the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration has launched an aggressive investigation of the Durango upper ball joints.

Though there have been no reported injuries or deaths, with 900,000 Durangos on the road, Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA administrator, says DaimlerChrysler should issue a recall immediately.

"The question is, 'Did the company know about this? What did they know? What have they done and why didn't they fix it if they had knowledge because it's such a serious defect?'"

NHTSA investigators say the upper ball joint complaints on Durango far outnumber any other SUV on the road:

The Durango received 395 upper ball joint complaints, compared to the Ford Explorer, 12; the Chevy Blazer, 11; and the Grand Cherokee didn't get any.

CBS News went undercover to a Dodge dealership where mechanics say they've actually seen more problems with the Dodge Dakota, which uses the same ball joints.

"Durangos and Dakotas seem liek they are tougher on them (ball joints) than any other vehicles,'' said one mechanic.

"I see it more in the Dakotas believe it or not," says one mechanic. "I have seen a lot of Dakotas with upper ball joints that are worn out."

In response to the NHTSA investigation, DaimlerChrysler states that "...the overwhelming majority (99.7 percent) of customer complaints received regarding these ball joints do not communicate any safety concerns whatsoever..."

The company declined CBS' repeated requests for an interview.

"I just want them to make things right and fix the problem," says Pealor.

But Pealor isn't waiting on the company. He's joined a nationwide class action lawsuit against Chrysler.