Toyota conducts safety tests on all SUVs after Consumer Reports ‘Don’t Buy’ warning on Lexus

By Yuri Kageyama, AP
Thursday, April 15, 2010

Toyota conducts safety tests on all SUV models

TOKYO — Toyota is testing all its sport utility vehicles to reassure buyers of their safety after Consumer Reports warned a large Lexus SUV is susceptible to rolling over.

The testing covers the entire lineup of Toyota and Lexus SUVs, including popular models such as the RAV4, the 4Runner and the Highlander, said Toyota spokesman Brian Lyons. The automaker will be testing the vehicles’ stability control and aims to replicate the Consumer Reports’ test that first uncovered the problem, he said. He was unaware how long the tests would take.

Toyota is also suspending production of the Lexus SUV — the GX 460 — which is built in Tahara, Japan, for 12 days starting Friday. The move follows suspension of the vehicle’s sales earlier this week.

Toyota has yet to decide whether it will recall the vehicle, a hefty seven-seat SUV sold mainly in North America but also in the Middle East, Russia and some other nations.

The actions reflect a new urgency at Toyota Motor Corp. to deal with safety problems. The automaker in recent months has been plagued by recalls and accusations that it responded too slowly to safety lapses.

Earlier this week, Consumer Reports gave the GX 460 a rare “Don’t Buy” rating because its rear slid out too far during sharp turns designed to test the vehicle’s handling. That puts the back end at risk of hitting a curb and rolling over.

Toyota says it does not know what’s causing the problem, but was working to address it so that the influential magazine, which many shoppers rely on to choose new cars, would retest the vehicle and give it a satisfactory rating.

“I do think Toyota is responding very quickly,” said Rebecca Lindland, automotive analyst at consulting firm IHS-Global Insight. “I think the difference is that this situation has been made very public.”

On Thursday night, Ford Motor Co. Executive Chairman Bill Ford Jr. said his company is reviewing the handling of its SUVs in response to the Lexus’ tests, a standard practice whenever another car company has a problem.

Although Ford is happy with its SUV performance, “We’d like to find out what the issue is with (the Lexus SUV) and then double check to make sure we don’t have the same issue,” he said after a speech at the Society of Automotive Engineers World Congress in Detroit.

A small-volume SUV that launched in late December, Toyota has sold just 4,787 GX 460s in the U.S. this year. That represents about 10 percent of sales for Lexus and just 1 percent Toyota’s overall U.S. sales.

Still, Toyota ordered dealers to stop selling the model in North America on Tuesday within hours of the Consumer Reports warning. Also on Thursday, Toyota said it would expand the sales halt to all markets. The model is not sold in Japan.

Toyota sold about 386,000 SUVs in the U.S. last year, about one-fifth of its total sales, according to The Lexus brand has been a cash cow for Toyota and has had a presence in the U.S. since the late 1980s.

Consumer Reports says the problem with the GX 460 emerged during a track test. In the test, the driver approaches a sharp turn unusually fast, then releases the accelerator pedal to evaluate the vehicle’s response.

The maneuver mimics what an alarmed driver might do after exiting a highway ramp too fast, Consumer Reports says. In normal circumstances, the electronic stability control — a computerized system that helps prevent skidding — should keep the car under control. But it took too long to kick in with the GX 460, causing it to slide almost sideways into the turn.

Consumer Reports said the sliding problem did not occur during the same test of the Toyota 4Runner, which shares the same underpinnings as the Lexus SUV.

Toyota has recalled more than 8 million vehicles worldwide since October, mostly due to flaws in the automaker’s pedal design. The Lexus GX 460 was not recalled over pedal problems.

Consumer Reports, widely read by many car buyers for its reputation for objectivity, has been critical of Toyota recently. In January, the magazine pulled its “recommended” rating on eight recalled models.

Toyota also faces a $16.4 million fine from the U.S. Transportation Department, which says the automaker was too slow to issue its recalls. Toyota has until April 19 to decide whether to contest the penalty.

The department’s safety agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, is also testing the GX 460 to make sure it meets federal safety standards for electronic stability control and to understand how Consumer Reports reached its conclusions.

The last vehicle to receive a similar safety warning from the magazine was the 2001 Mitsubishi Montero Limited, a large SUV whose wheels lifted off the road during avoidance-maneuver tests, posing a rollover risk, according to testers.

U.S.-traded shares of Toyota fell 27 cents to close Thursday at $80.06.

Strumpf reported from New York. AP Auto Writer Tom Krisher in Detroit contributed to this report.

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