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Prius concerns arise as Toyota dealers fix other models

AUTOS

Owners complain of problems with the brakes, the lights and unexpected reversal.

February 04, 2010|By Tiffany Hsu
  • Sounggua Kang waits at Central Toyota in downtown Los Angeles for his car to be repaired. Toyota has recalled eight models, including the Camry and Corolla, to address reports of sudden acceleration.
Sounggua Kang waits at Central Toyota in downtown Los Angeles for his car… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)

Just as Toyota dealers seemed to get a handle on the sticky-pedal problem, a new headache emerged Thursday as Prius owners began worrying about reports that the hybrid vehicle may also be afflicted with problems.

So far, most Prius owners calling dealers have been calm. But one dealership fielded a call from a panicked customer who was so terrified of driving his Prius hybrid that he asked to have a tow truck pick up the vehicle.

The Prius concerns marked the latest hurdle for Toyota dealers as they began fixing vehicles as part of Toyota Motor Corp.'s biggest recall. The Japanese automaker has recalled eight vehicle models, including the popular Camry and Corolla, to address reports of sudden acceleration. The Prius was not included in that recall.

By 7:30 a.m., employees had already fixed six cars at Central Toyota in downtown Los Angeles. The repair required installing a small shim to the brake assembly. Several orderly lines of vehicles formed under an outdoor tent and, with wheels squelching, were quickly maneuvered away for repair.

"I was expecting worse today -- we were very worried about being overwhelmed," service manager Douglas Lima said. "But it's not bad."

As federal investigators expanded their probe to address problems with the 2010 Prius, Prius owners around the country recounted their ordeals.

Brent Batty, a West Sacramento resident and mental health worker, said he nearly rear-ended someone with his 2007 Prius several weeks ago. He blamed the incident on the brakes, which he said tend to seize up when the car goes over a bump.

"I step on the brakes, it starts to grab and then lets up like it's grabbing nothing. It scares the hell out of me every time," he said. "My girlfriend won't drive with me anymore."

Some Prius owners are also reporting problems with the headlights. Adam Gaver, a computer technician from Wyoming, Mich., said the headlights keep going out. He's replaced three -- once shelling out $600 -- and now another has stopped working.

Gaver said his dealer blamed the headlight problem on "the elements" such as dust, dirt and rain. The dealer has replaced the bulbs and the entire control module, he said.

"It's not like it's a headlight you can go buy at the corner auto store and slap in," he said. "It's infuriating."

Gaver said he felt "vindicated" after hearing about fellow owners with similar problems. "I can't be the only one it's happening to, I thought, but the dealer and Toyota kept telling me I was the only person," he said.

Srinivasan Vasudevan, a San Dimas engineer, said he has a different problem with his 2010 Prius.

The car sometimes reverses several feet even after he's shifted to drive, he said. And recently his wife was slowing down over railway tracks when the car suddenly accelerated, bounding ahead 50 feet, he said.

"It's a brand-new car and it's making me nervous," said Vasudevan, who also owns two other Toyotas. "There's a problem, and Toyota's ignoring it. It's not a welcoming attitude."

As more reports surfaced on the problems with Prius, owners of the recalled models began streaming to dealerships Thursday.

At Longo Toyota in El Monte, things have been "crazy," service manager Jose Uribe said. About 300 parts came in Wednesday; another 500 arrived Thursday. Roughly 50 customers have made appointments through the weekend for some sort of recall work, and walk-ins are expected as well, he said.

Longo began operating 24 hours a day on Wednesday. One customer on his way to church saw the dealership's sign from the freeway and pulled in for a fix at 10:15 p.m., Uribe said.

So far, 35 customers have driven off in loaner cars provided by Longo while their own vehicles are being repaired, and another 20 have had their cars towed to the service shop, including one from San Bernardino.

Inside the customer lounge, Wayne Tao, 35, of Monrovia held a flashing beeper as he waited for his 2010 Corolla.

Having never had problems with the car, he said he wasn't too concerned about the recall.

"If the repair doesn't work, people will just stop trusting Toyota," Tao said. "But for now, they seem to be doing what they're supposed to do."

When Central Toyota opened at 6 a.m. Thursday, healthcare assistant D. Kirkwood, 52, was the first customer.

Friends and family had urged her to abandon her 2009 Camry after the recalls. Kirkwood asked her attorney about ways to get rid of it.

"I can't afford to have an accident or any kind of problem," she said. "I immediately wanted to look for another car. I told passengers to ride at their own risk."

But after the repair, which took 30 minutes, she left saying she felt reassured.

Koreatown watch salesman Steve Yi, 45, drove his 2009 Camry to Central Toyota without an appointment.

"I hope I feel safe after this fix," he said. "This is my dream car, and I drive it every day."

On top of 20 appointments on Thursday, service manager Lima said, another 40 customers would probably show up unannounced. The dealership expects to spend about three months doing the repair for most of its 500 affected customers.

"This could have happened to anyone," said Lima. "Nobody's perfect. We need to learn from this and look to the future."

tiffany.hsu@latimes.com

Times staff writer Jerry Hirsch contributed to this report.

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