Toyota duplicates SUV problem

DETROIT/WASHINGTON Fri Apr 16, 2010 7:46pm EDT

Toyota Group Vice President and General Manager Bob Carter introduces the 2010 Toyota Sienna minivans at the LA Auto Show in Los Angeles December 2, 2009. REUTERS/Phil McCarten

Toyota Group Vice President and General Manager Bob Carter introduces the 2010 Toyota Sienna minivans at the LA Auto Show in Los Angeles December 2, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Phil McCarten

DETROIT/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Toyota Motor Corp(7203.T) confirmed results of a Consumer Reports test revealing a handling problem in a Lexus sport utility vehicle and sales will not resume until it is fixed, the automaker said on Friday.

Separately, U.S. Congressional investigators sought more information about the review of electronic throttles by the automaker and its consult on the matter as part of a broader review this year of unintended acceleration.

Energy and Commerce Committee lawmakers scheduled a May 6 hearing and asked that Toyota U.S. sales chief Jim Lentz testify. Lentz appeared before the panel in February.

Both developments and news of a voluntary recall in the United States and Canada of 870,000 Sienna mini vans for a cold-weather corrosion risk came ahead of Monday's deadline for Toyota to decide whether to appeal a proposed $16.4 million Transportation Department fine.

U.S. safety regulators alleged earlier this month that Toyota knowingly hid information from regulators and violated regulations by delaying a recall in January for gas pedals that would not spring back as designed.

Toyota has said it had done a poor job of communicating before its recalls, and has taken steps to address the problem.

The latest safety issues come as Toyota is trying to repair its image for quality and reliability in the United States following massive recalls, congressional and regulatory investigations, and a flood of new lawsuits.

Toyota shares fell less than 1 percent on Friday in New York to $79.37.

Toyota halted U.S. sales of the 2010 Lexus GX 460 luxury SUV on Tuesday and stopped production overall after Consumer Reports warned of a rollover risk and issued a rare warning advising consumers not to buy it.

Road handling tests by the magazine published by Consumers Union found that vehicle's rear end could slide out in a tight turn.

Lexus spokesman Bill Kwong said in a statement that "our engineers in Japan replicated the driving procedure and have duplicated the Consumer Reports result."

Toyota was "evaluating potential remedies" and it was too early to determine the timing of any repairs, Kwong said.

He added that sales will remain suspended until the company is confident the issue is resolved.

David Strickland, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said on Thursday the agency would conduct its own tests on the Lexus used by Consumer Reports and on others of the same model.

Strickland applauded Toyota's handling of the warning on the Lexus SUV, which is a departure from the stiff criticism from regulators and lawmakers over how the company managed recent recalls.

Toyota recalled more than 6 million cars and trucks in the United States across its product line in October 2009 and in January for unintended acceleration linked to the "sticky pedal" problem and for floor mats that can trap the accelerator.

NHTSA engineers are in the midst of another review to address lingering questions about whether there are possible software or other electronic glitches in Toyota throttles and whether they could be behind consumer complaints of unintended acceleration.

U.S. safety investigators have never found any problems with the Toyota throttle systems, but lawmakers, safety advocates and others have questioned whether investigations over the years were thorough enough.

Preliminary work by Toyota engineering consultant Exponent (EXPO.O) showed no problems with the throttles, Toyota has said. The automaker has also said its internal reviews over the years have found that the system is sound.

Congress wants more answers, however.

In a letters on Friday to Toyota's Lentz and Exponent officials, Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Bart Stupak sought contracts, correspondence, reports and analysis related to Exponent's work for Toyota.

Toyota said in a statement it is "more than willing to meet with the committee and discuss" electronic throttle testing and steps to improve quality assurance.

Waxman and Stupak took issue with Toyota's conclusion in March that it had rigorously examined its throttle systems and found no problems.

(Reporting by John Crawley; Editing by Andre Grenon, Richard Chang and Bernard Orr)