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Toyota faces concerns over Prius

2010 model’s brake system raises new quality questions

Line technician Bobby Rewoldt II, installs a shim into a CTS accelerator pedal for a 2010 Toyota Corolla at a Michigan dealership. Line technician Bobby Rewoldt II, installs a shim into a CTS accelerator pedal for a 2010 Toyota Corolla at a Michigan dealership. (Paul Sancya/Associated Press)
By D.C. Denison and Erin Ailworth
Globe Staff / February 5, 2010

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As local Toyota dealers repaired gas pedals on hundreds of recalled cars, federal officials yesterday opened an investigation into complaints about the brake system in 2010 Prius hybrids, amid growing questions about the quality of vehicles from the world’s largest automaker.

Toyota Motor Corp. did not say whether it would recall the 2010 Prius, its flagship product.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it received 124 complaints from owners of the new Prius, including four reports of crashes. The federal investigation will look into complaints of momentary loss of braking power while traveling over uneven roads, potholes, or bumps.

A spokeswoman for Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley said her office received a “high number’’ of calls about Toyota cars, and is “monitoring the situation.’’ The state’s Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation has received more than 100 calls - more than usual for one issue - since Toyota’s original recall announcement, said general counsel Diane Lawton.

Almost 8 million Toyota vehicles worldwide have already been recalled for defects leading to sudden acceleration, with at least 110,000 of those in Massachusetts.

Local Toyota dealers were busy making repairs to recalled cars yesterday. At Prime Toyota of Boston, president David Rosenberg said he expected to service 300 or more vehicles covered by the most recent recall, which affected eight popular models, by the end of the day. Boch Toyota in Norwood, where walk-in customers waited up to two hours for the repairs, serviced more than 100 recalled Toyota vehicles. Two Herb Chambers dealerships, in Boston and Auburn, made a combined 100 repairs of recalled Toyotas over the last two days.

Trouble with the Prius threatens to further damage the reputation of the company, which was known for reliable, well-built cars. Erich Merkle, an analyst with Autoconomy.com, questioned how long Toyota knew it had a problem. “It’s hard to believe that when they first investigated it and found that the floor mats were the problem, that that was actually true and they believed that,’’ he said, adding that the company’s problems will only grow if the problem is found to be with Toyota electronic systems.

John Paul of AAA Southern New England, who is known as the Car Doctor, explained that gas pedals, which used to be physically connected to a car’s throttle by a cable, now trigger switches that send electronic signals to control acceleration.

“Suppose you step on the gas pedal and the gas pedal really isn’t sticking, it’s really sending an electronic signal for the engine to accelerate?’’ he said.

Jake Fisher, a senior automotive engineer at Consumer Reports, said it took Toyota decades to build its reputation for reliable cars. “However, in the last couple of years we have seen some Toyotas with less-than-average reliability,’’ he said. ‘There is a question of whether or not they took their eye off the ball in terms of being the most reliable or highest quality versus being the biggest.’’

Still, he cautioned that the number of problems attributed to faulty Toyota cars is relatively small. By the most liberal estimate, he said, in the last decade 19 deaths have been attributed to unintended acceleration in Toyotas - compared to roughly 40,000 motor vehicle deaths nationwide annually.

“You’re more likely to crash while on the cellphone talking about the Toyota problems than you are to crash because of the Toyota problems,’’ he said.

The recent recalls follow transmission problems with 2001 to 2003 models of the Toyota RAV4 sport utility vehicle.

In March 2006, Toyota sent dealers a service bulletin warning that some consumers might complain about harsh shifting. Toyota told the dealers to replace the module, and if that did not work, to replace the transmission.

But vehicle owners were never notified of the problem, putting them at risk of major transmission damage.

Clarence Ditlow, the executive director of The Center for Auto Safety in Washington, D.C., said Toyota issued a “secret warranty,’’ failing to notify owners but telling dealers they will cover the cost of repairs.

“So they say [to dealers], if someone complains loudly enough, you can fix it for free,’’ he said.

Ditlow described Toyota as being in “crisis mode.’’

“There’s no doubt in my mind that Toyota will have to recall the Prius,’’ he said. “They have to do whatever they can to save their reputation.’’

Toyota did not immediately respond to requests for comment, but managing officer Takuo Sasaki said in an earnings call yesterday, “We’ll be making maximum, all-out efforts in restoring the confidence and trust of customers early.’’

In the 1980s, the Audi automotive brand suffered from similar acceleration defects. It took years for the brand to recover its sales in the luxury market.

But Craig Carlson, a Boston-based automotive industry analyst, said Toyota has enough good will and a reputation for customer service that will allow it to bounce back in a year or two.

“Toyota owners are loyal and forgiving. They’ll get the pedal fixed, and a high percentage will buy another Toyota,’’ he said.

Newly elected Newton Mayor Setti Warren, who inherited the white 2007 Prius driven by his predecessor, said his staff told him the car is safe to drive.

“They assured me that they have been in communication with Toyota, and that my vehicle is not in any jeopardy,’’ Warren said. “It’s been driving well, driving fine, no problems.’’

Some Toyota drivers are hoping the recalls are in the past.

Carina Pina, 23, a Dorchester mother who brought her 2010 Toyota Camry to Boch Toyota after two “weird’’ incidents with the accelerator, called the dealer at 1:30 a.m. yesterday to see when it would be fixed.

She was surprised that not only did someone pick up the phone, but he told her that her car was repaired and ready to be picked up.

Yesterday, Pina said the car feels “pretty much the same,’’ but that she feels “a lot better.’’

“I’m impressed with how quickly they fixed it,’’ she added. “I’m confident that they can handle this problem.’’

Megan Woolhouse of the Globe staff contributed to this report. D.C. Denison can be reached at denison@globe.com; Erin Ailworth can be reached at eailworth@globe.com.

Product recalls

Product recalls

Keep safe. Follow the latest product recalls here.

Called back

Number of Toyotas subject to recall in Massachusetts as of September 2009, by model:

Pedal recall

Model
’09-’10 RAV4 5,220
’09-’10 Corolla 15,850
’09-’10 Matrix 2,081
’05-’10 Avalon 8,436
’07-’10 Camry 43,867
’10 Highlander None
’07-’10 Tundra 6,284
’08-’10 Sequoia 776

Floor mat

Model
’05-’10 Avalon 8,436
’07-’10 Camry 43,867
’09-’10 Corolla 15,850
’08-’10 Highlander 7,560
’09-’10 Matrix 2,081
’04-’09 Prius 19,320
’05-’10 Tacoma 19,149
’07-’10 Tundra 6,284
’09-’10 Venza1,281

SOURCE: Experian Automotive