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Toyota is conducting a recall to replace steering component

More than half a million Tundra pickups and Sequoia SUVs could get new ball joints after failures are reported.

January 19, 2007|John O'Dell | Times Staff Writer

Toyota Motor Corp., which boasted one of the best recall records among major automakers in the U.S. last year after a troubled 2005, is starting the new year with a potential black eye.

The company's Torrance-based U.S. sales arm said Thursday that it was launching a safety recall of 553,000 full-size Tundra pickups and Sequoia sport utility vehicles to replace a key part of the front steering system.

Toyota spokesman Bill Kwong said the part, a ball joint that enables the front wheels to turn, was made by an outside supplier. Replacing both of the lower front ball joints on the recalled vehicles could cost the supplier and its insurer more than $250 million, he said.

Toyota declined to identify the supplier involved.

The recall will be handled in cooperation with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Toyota said the problem was discovered as several customers complained to the safety agency, which found that failure of a lower ball joint on the vehicles was responsible for 11 accidents since late 2003.

There were no deaths, but the accidents resulted in six injuries.

A long string of recalls can start wearing away at a company's reputation, analysts say, but automakers that issue prompt recall notices can minimize the hit to their images.

"Toyota wrote the handbook on the right way to keep customers satisfied," said industry consultant David Hillburn, former strategic planner for the Ford Motor Co. account at advertising giant Young & Rubicam.

Toyota said vehicle owners would not be charged for the work, which will be done by appointment at local dealerships.

Owners of the affected vehicles, which were built from September 2003 to last November at Toyota's plant in Princeton, Ind., will be notified by mail beginning in mid-February.

The suspect ball joints were experiencing premature wear, becoming loose in their fittings and causing increased steering effort, noise in the front suspension and a reduction in the steering systems' self-centering function, which pulls the wheels back to a forward-facing direction after a turn.

The recall is an example of the risks that automakers run by sharing common components among several models.

In the past, most vehicles used unique underpinnings, but as cost-cutting efforts have increased in the last two decades, manufacturers are trying to realize savings in engineering, assembly and parts purchasing by using common components.

If the ball joint were unique to the Sequoia, the recall would have involved 154,500 vehicles -- well short of the half a million that have been affected.

Toyota, which can attribute much of its success to a reputation for quality and reliability, recalled 2.4 million vehicles in the U.S. in 2005, almost all of them in two campaigns involving steering system parts on older pickups and SUVs.

That led some people to criticize the Japanese company for expanding too quickly and paying less attention to the basics that helped it become the No. 3 auto manufacturer in the U.S.

After launching a company-wide effort to improve quality control, Toyota last year recalled 814,205 vehicles, besting Chrysler Group, Ford, General Motors Corp., Nissan Motor Co., Honda Motor Co. and Volkswagen.

Safety recalls can range from the serious -- a defective part that can cause tremendous problems if it fails -- to the seemingly silly: Almost all of the 1.2 million Honda vehicles affected last year were recalled to replace the owner's manuals, which contained an erroneous toll-free number for NHTSA. When dialed, the number printed in the manuals redirected callers to a second number, for a phone-sex service.

Toyota said Thursday that Tundra and Sequoia owners with questions about the ball joint recall should call its customer service line, (800) 331-4331.

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john.odell@latimes.com

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