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Toyota moves to control damage from Consumer Reports' Lexus warning

The automaker's swift reaction in the wake of a series of large recalls is expected to set a precedent for other manufacturers who find themselves in similar situations.

April 14, 2010|By Jerry Hirsch and Tiffany Hsu

The swift reaction by Toyota Motor Corp. to suspend sales of one of its upscale Lexus sport utility vehicles after it failed a Consumer Reports safety test illustrates how sensitive the auto industry has become in the wake of a series of large recalls in recent months.

Just hours after the magazine's influential buyer's guide said shoppers should not purchase the 2010 model year Lexus GX 460 SUV because of the possibility of a rollover, the automaker pulled the vehicle from its dealership showrooms.

Toyota said Wednesday that it was putting the vehicle through a new set of tests to see if it could replicate the problem Consumer Reports spotted.

"Toyota is heeding all the criticism they are getting, including claims that they are slow to react to complaints," said Jeremy Anwyl, chief executive of auto information firm Edmunds.com. "They don't want to take any chances."

The move is expected to set a precedent for other auto manufacturers who find themselves in similar situations, Anwyl said. To do otherwise would prompt consumers and regulators to remember Toyota's response and ask "why they aren't doing it too," he said.

Federal regulators, who also have come under fire for not reacting quickly to investigate alleged safety defects in Toyotas and other vehicles, also are likely to take action sooner.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a warning about the Lexus SUV within hours of the magazine's report. The agency advised drivers of the vehicle "to use care and caution" when operating the SUV and said it would review Consumer Reports' findings and conduct its own tests.

Consumer Reports said Toyota's sales suspension and new series of tests on the GX were "encouraging."

The warnings come as Toyota is using aggressive financing and lease incentives to lure customers back to showrooms after a series of large recalls and federal probes into safety defects.

The Japanese carmaker has issued nearly 10 million recall notices worldwide in recent months for problems related to sudden acceleration that it blames on sticky gas pedals and faulty floor mat design, as well as braking problems in some hybrid models.

The latest findings have unnerved some Lexus owners.

Teresa Atkinson, 44, a Realtor in Scottsdale, Ariz., said she planned to wait and see whether she should trade in or try to sell her 2006 Lexus GX 470.

"I have nothing but great things to say about my car, but because I have clients in it every day, now I'm thinking I need to be more wary," she said. "It's scary, just because it's on the Toyota platform, and they have a lot of baggage right now."

But other Lexus owners were unfazed.

Michaelene Kapson, 26, a lawyer in San Diego, drives a Lexus RX 300. She said the Consumer Reports study might be another example of people blowing the situation out of proportion.

"My car is great, and I have no problem with it," Kapson said. "I don't have any fear about it flipping over or breaking down."

After suspending sales of the GX, Toyota engineers in Japan started running the vehicle on the automaker's test track Wednesday morning to see if they could duplicate the Consumer Reports findings.

Although the Consumer Reports test is considered an automotive industry standard, every automaker and test track runs it slightly differently and that could yield different results, said Bill Kwong, a Lexus brand spokesman at Toyota's U.S. sales headquarters in Torrance.

"We are working with Consumer Reports to find out exactly what they did," Kwong said. "Their speeds could be different, their turns tighter, the road on their track might be banked and even different weather conditions might have an effect on the results."

Toyota wants to see if it can duplicate the flaw and, if it does, figure out a remedy, Kwong said. He said Toyota ran a similar test on the vehicle during its development and did not find the same flaw that prompted the Consumer Reports warning.

Although Consumers Reports and others have suggested that a comparatively simple adjustment in the software of the vehicle's electronic stability control system should fix the defect, Toyota officials said they would not speculate on what might be needed to improve the vehicle's traction in conditions that replicate the test. In addition to software, factors as varied as sensors, suspension settings and tires might have an effect, the company said.

In the meantime, Toyota doesn't plan to sell the vehicle.

"It will be off the market for as long as it takes to get to the bottom of this and figure out if we need to fix something," Kwong said.

In the Consumer Reports test, the driver sped the Lexus GX up to 60 mph and took the vehicle into a turn. The driver then quickly lifted his foot off the accelerator pedal to see how the vehicle would react. All four of Consumer Reports' auto engineers experienced the same problem -- the rear of the Lexus GX "slid out until the vehicle was almost sideways" before its electronic stability control system was able to regain control, according to the magazine.

Consumer Reports puts every vehicle it evaluates through the same test, including the 95 SUVs in the magazine's current auto ratings. No other SUV in recent years slid out as far as the GX 460, it said, not even the current model year Toyota 4Runner, which shares the same platform as the GX.

The last time Consumer Reports issued a do-not-buy warning was in 2001, when the Yonkers, N.Y., magazine said the performance of a Mitsubishi Montero Limited was "not acceptable."

jerry.hirsch@latimes.com

tiffany.hsu@latimes.com

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