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Regulators Probe Claims of Prius Stalling at Higher Speeds

June 02, 2005|John O'Dell | Times Staff Writer

The reliability record of Toyota Motor Corp.'s popular Prius gas-electric hybrid was bruised Wednesday as federal regulators said they began an investigation into complaints that the car can stall at highway speeds.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said the preliminary investigation would involve about 75,000 Priuses, all 2004 and 2005 models.

Toyota spokesman Sam Butto said the automaker was still investigating complaints and had not yet diagnosed the problem. Some consumers said dealers attempting repairs thought the problem was caused by a software glitch, but Toyota has not confirmed that.

Word of the problem first surfaced two weeks ago, when the NHTSA said it had received 13 complaints. An additional 20 consumers have complained, prompting the agency to begin its investigation. The probe is the first of a series of steps to be taken before a recall could be ordered. The U.S. agency said that not all preliminary investigations resulted in further action.

Toyota said the NHTSA's action was "an early-stage inquiry to determine if further analysis is warranted, not a recall." The company said it was cooperating and would provide the agency with results of its own investigation when it was completed.

Many of the complaints filed with the agency indicate that the cars stall at speeds of 35 mph to 65 mph, and all said the gasoline engine shut down without warning. About half reported that the cars had to be towed to a dealership to be restarted.

The Prius, introduced in the U.S. five years ago, triggered the popularity of hybrid vehicles. As gasoline prices have stuck above the $2-a-gallon mark, some older Prius models have fetched higher prices on the used-car market than they did when new.

New models have a base price of $21,515 but routinely sell for thousands of dollars more, and many dealerships have months-long waiting lists. In May, Toyota sold 9,461 of the cars, up from 3,962 a year earlier, and it expects to sell 110,000 by year's end.

The Prius and other hybrids typically get better gas mileage than competing conventional vehicles. Reviewers typically report average fuel economy of 40 to 48 miles per gallon in everyday use.

Despite the complex electronics and computer programming needed to make the car's separate gas engine and electric drive motor work together smoothly, there have been only two recalls of the Prius, and neither involved the hybrid system.

Last year Toyota moved quickly to stave off a potential third recall when it voluntarily called in about 20,000 of the 2004 Prius models to reprogram engine control software after some buyers complained engine warning lights were flashing on for no apparent reason. A few customers complained of unexplained engine stalling at that time.

Toyota has said it had not received information from its dealers indicating that a new stalling problem was brewing.

Analysts said that unless the NHTSA probe resulted in a major safety recall, it was unlikely to dim enthusiasm for the hybrid, which had been widely praised for quality and reliability. J.D. Power & Associates recently named it the top compact car for the third time in five years.

Toyota's U.S.-traded shares rose 37 cents to $72.08.

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