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Study: Toyota received most complaints about sudden acceleration

Toyota was the target of 41% of all consumer complaints about the problem in 2008 cars, according to Consumer Reports. Ford received 28% of complaints.

December 08, 2009|By Ken Bensinger and Ralph Vartabedian

Toyota Motor Corp. registered far more complaints about sudden acceleration in its 2008 model-year vehicles than any other automaker, a new study has found.

Toyota and Lexus vehicles received 41% of all consumer complaints to a federal database about runaway acceleration, more than Chrysler, General Motors, Honda and Nissan combined, analysis by Consumer Reports found. Ford was a distant second with 28% of complaints.

Toyota received 52 complaints, Consumer Reports said.

The analysis of acceleration complaints logged by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration covered only the 2008 model year. Nonetheless, said Jeff Bartlett, deputy online automotive editor at Consumer Reports, "it says this is a very real problem."

Toyota's share of the U.S. market in 2007 and 2008, when 2008 model-year cars were sold, was roughly 16%.

Toyota spokesman John Hanson said the automaker could not comment until it had studied the report.

Toyota has been the subject of increasing scrutiny over sudden acceleration in the wake of an August accident involving an out-of-control Lexus ES in San Diego County that took four lives including that of an off-duty California Highway Patrol officer.

That prompted Toyota to announce its largest-ever recall, of 4.26 million vehicles in the U.S. and Canada. Starting in January, the automaker will modify or replace accelerator pedals in seven Toyota and Lexus models, alter carpeting in some models and install new safety software in onboard computers. The recall includes vehicles from the 2005 through 2010 model years.

Toyota has repeatedly blamed interaction between the gas pedal and floor mats that could cause the pedal to become stuck in a full-throttle position. But probes into a number of accidents, including the San Diego County crash, have not conclusively found the floor mat responsible.

A Times review found that 19 people had died in sudden-acceleration accidents involving Toyotas since the 2002 model year, more than all other automakers combined. In addition, The Times found that complaints of sudden acceleration increased dramatically after the automaker began replacing mechanical throttles with electronic throttle systems in the 2002 model year.

Attorneys for the family of the CHP officer killed in August released a report Monday from the San Diego County Sheriff's Department that pointed to the floor mats but still left open the possibility of other causes. It said "additional factors causing a sudden acceleration event (re: electrical, mechanical or computer generated) should not be ruled out."

Consumer Reports studied only acceleration incidents that "could be a real dangerous safety issue," excluding low-speed events or ones in which the vehicle was stopped before the problem became more serious, according to Bartlett.

In addition, the magazine excluded incidents reported after the San Diego crash to eliminate any increases in complaints that could have been caused by publicity.

Bartlett noted that Ford complaints were mostly limited to one model, the F-150 pickup, while Toyota complaints fell across a wide spectrum of vehicles, including ones not in the current recall.

"We constantly monitor the performance of our vehicles and have not identified a trend that would suggest this type of risk to motor vehicle safety," Ford said in a statement. "Our preliminary review of this randomly selected data shows a very small number of allegations across millions of vehicles."

The F-150 complaints, Bartlett said, seemed to be focused on the distance between the brake and gas pedals, and many consumers acknowledged stepping on the wrong pedal.

But few if any consumers alleging acceleration in Toyota or Lexus vehicles blamed it on pedal entrapment.

"It looks like the problem may be beyond floor mats," Bartlett said.

ken.bensinger@latimes.com

ralph.vartabedian @latimes.com

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