Toyota Seeks Fix for Lexus SUV Handling, Faces New Congressional Hearing

Photographer: Mark Elias/Bloomberg

Toyota Motor Corp.'s 2010 Lexus GX460 sport utility vehicle is driven by members of the media in San Diego, California in this file photo. Close

Toyota Motor Corp.'s 2010 Lexus GX460 sport utility vehicle is driven by members of the... Read More

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Photographer: Mark Elias/Bloomberg

Toyota Motor Corp.'s 2010 Lexus GX460 sport utility vehicle is driven by members of the media in San Diego, California in this file photo.

Toyota Motor Corp. said it’s seeking a fix for a Lexus model identified as a “safety risk” by Consumer Reports as a U.S. congressional committee set a new hearing to examine unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles.

The world’s largest automaker said yesterday its engineers reproduced the same “slide” Consumer Reports magazine found in its tests of the 2010 GX 460 sport-utility vehicle. Separately, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman asked Toyota for documents on unintended acceleration for a hearing his panel will hold on potential electronic causes on May 6.

“We’re going to work on a countermeasure” to eliminate the handling issue on the GX, said Bill Kwong, a U.S. spokesman for Toyota’s luxury unit. “It’s too early to say exactly what that will be.”

The combination of Consumer Reports issuing a “don’t buy” assessment on the Lexus GX and renewed congressional scrutiny underscores the challenge Toyota faces regaining its reputation after global recalls of more than 8 million autos for problems including unintended acceleration. Compounding those issues, Toyota yesterday recalled 870,000 Sienna minivans in the U.S. and Canada for corrosion in a cable that holds the spare tire.

“Big obstacles remain before Toyota can regain customer trust and its strong quality reputation, especially in the case of non-Toyota owners,” said industry researcher Robert Cole, professor emeritus at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. “The public now associates problems of unintended acceleration with Toyota.”

Toyota’s American depositary receipts fell 69 cents, or 0.9 percent, to $79.37 yesterday in New York Stock Exchange composite trading.

GX Test

The assessment by Consumer Reports, a non-profit magazine published by Yonkers, New York-based Consumers Union, was the first of its type for the magazine in nine years and led Toyota to halt sales and production of the $52,000 SUV.

Consumer Reports researchers found the GX’s rear end “slid out until the vehicle was almost sideways before the electronic stability control system was able to regain control” at a Connecticut test track, the magazine said. “In real-world driving, that situation could lead to a rollover accident, which could cause serious injury or death.”

The Toyota City, Japan-based company said GX assembly at its Tahara, Japan, plant would stop from April 16 through April 28. Toyota suspended sales of the luxury SUV in North America, Russia and the Middle East. Toyota has said it’s conducting Consumer Reports’ driving test on all Toyota and Lexus SUVs.

“With the GX, this isn’t necessarily a problem related to carrying out an avoidance maneuver, but one that comes up when drivers are traveling at a high rate of speed,” said Dan Edmunds, director of vehicle testing for Edmunds.com, a Santa Monica, California-based automotive data and pricing service.

“The fix could be something as simple as reprogramming the software for the electronic stability control system,” Edmunds said.

House Hearing

Toyota executives were called before House and Senate committees in February and March to explain the causes of its recalls for problems linked to sudden acceleration.

Waxman, a California Democrat, said yesterday in a letter to Toyota U.S. sales chief Jim Lentz that his committee wants to know more about Toyota’s work with engineering and research firm Exponent Inc. Waxman asked Lentz to testify at next month’s hearing.

The panel asked for all contracts and correspondence between Toyota and Exponent relating to unintended acceleration and electronic throttle-control systems.

Exponent executives helped Toyota rebut the assertions of a Southern Illinois University professor about flaws in its electronic controls at a March 8 news conference. David Gilbert, a professor of automotive technology, had been featured in an ABC News broadcast and testified at a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing Feb. 23.

New Recalls

Toyota said yesterday that the spare tire on Siennas can be dislodged if the cable deteriorates. The company is voluntarily recalling 1998 through 2010 vans sold in parts of the U.S. and Canada where salt is most likely to be used on roads.

“Toyota is listening to its customers attentively, and we want to make sure their voices are heard,” Steve St. Angelo, the Japanese automaker’s chief quality officer for North America, said in a statement. “We are also working diligently to develop a remedy as soon as possible.”

New York and New Jersey are among 20 states and the District of Columbia that are covered by the recall. Toyota is working on a fix for the defect and will inspect affected vehicles in the meantime, the company said.

The automaker said it will provide free inspections of spare-tire cables in all states, including those not in the recall, to customers who want them.

Toyota also said yesterday it’s recalling 4,774 units of “tray-type” floor mats in Canada on some 2007 through 2010 Tundra pickups and 2008 through 2010 Highlander and Highlander Hybrid SUVS. Like floor mats recalled last year, these can shift out of position and potentially cause the accelerator pedal to stick, Toyota’s Canadian unit said in a statement.

To contact the reporters on this story: Alan Ohnsman in Los Angeles at aohnsman@bloomberg.net; Jeff Plungis in Washington at jplungis@bloomberg.net; Angela Greiling Keane in Washington at agreilingkea@bloomberg.net

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