Toyota Motor Corp. announced another large recall of autos in the U.S. on Thursday, this time for a steering problem in 373,000 Avalon sedans built for the 2000-2004 model years.
The automaker said that because of an improper casting, a component of the steering lock system can crack. When the Avalon is steered hard to the right, there is a chance that the piece will break, locking up the steering wheel and increasing the risk of a crash.
There have been six reports of the problem in the U.S., with three accidents but no injuries, said Toyota spokesman Brian Lyons.
Toyota says it plans to replace the steering-column bracket on the vehicles, a procedure that takes about two hours to complete. Toyota said it would notify owners by first-class mail beginning in late August to take their vehicles to a dealer to have the work done at no charge.
The automaker also said Tuesday it would recall 39,000 of its Lexus brand LX 470 SUVs from the 2003-2007 model years to fix a steering-shaft condition unrelated to the Avalon problem. Lyons said Toyota was not aware of any accidents resulting from the Lexus steering-shaft problem.
In the Lexus SUV, a part called a snap ring on the steering shaft may disengage when the vehicle experiences a very strong impact to the front wheels, such as striking a deep pothole. Under some conditions, this can cause the steering shaft to disengage over time. Lexus will send out a letter in mid-August asking owners to bring their SUVs back to the local dealer so new parts can be installed to fix the problem.
The latest recalls bring the number of vehicles Toyota has recalled in the last year to about 9 million worldwide. That's almost as many vehicles as were sold by all manufacturers in the U.S. last year. The other recalls involved floor mats that could jam accelerators, sticking gas pedals, brakes and other components.
Toyota faces hundreds of lawsuits arising from its problems with sudden acceleration and sticking gas pedals and has been the target of intense scrutiny by federal safety regulators and Congress. And that has caused the automaker to take a cautious approach when problems crop up in its vehicles, said Rebecca Lindland, an analyst at IHS Automotive.
"If one of their vehicles so much as hiccups or coughs, they now do a big recall," Lindland said, "and it is very expensive."
The company previously said it had a breakdown in quality control and that it was working to improve its operations.
In announcing the latest recall, Steve St. Angelo, Toyota's chief quality officer for North America, said the automaker was "continuing to work diligently to address safety issues wherever they arise and to strengthen our global quality assurance operations so that Toyota owners can be confident in the safety of their vehicles."
Nonetheless, the massive recalls have taken their toll on Toyota's sales in the U.S.
Through the first six months of this year, Toyota's sales — not including those of the Lexus and Scion brands — rose 8.6% compared with an overall gain of 16.7% for the entire industry. Its U.S. market share has dropped to 13.2%, compared with 14.1% during the same period a year earlier, when it was competing with the bankruptcy-hampered General Motors and Chrysler Group, among other rivals.
"The die-hard Toyota people won't care about the recalls," Lindland said. "Where Toyota is struggling is with the conquest, or new, buyers. These people are asking why they should buy a new Toyota."
Separately, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Thursday it had launched a tougher system of crash tests that would start with the testing of 55 vehicles from the 2011 model year.
The agency said it would use the new criteria to test 24 passenger cars, 20 sport utility vehicles, two vans and nine pickup trucks from the new model year. The new system will for the first time provide consumers with a single overall safety score for each vehicle. The new testing program also will give drivers more information about new advanced crash-avoidance technologies, such as lane departure and forward collision warning systems.
The testing will include some of the nation's bestselling sedans, including the Ford Fusion, the Honda Accord and the Toyota Camry, as well as popular SUVs, including the Ford Edge and the Chevrolet Traverse.