By KATE LINEBAUGH And NORIHIKO SHIROUZU
In a stunning and unprecedented move, Toyota Motor Corp. on Tuesday halted sales of most of its popular models in the U.S. in response to growing concerns that possible defects may cause the vehicles to accelerate unintentionally.
The Japanese car maker, which long has been viewed as the leader in automotive quality, said it told its dealers to stop selling eight models, including the Camry and Corolla sedans, two of the biggest sellers in the U.S. market. Other models affected by the move include the RAV4 and Highlander sport-utility vehicles and the Tundra pickup truck.
The eight models represented 57% of Toyota's 2009 U.S. sales. Toyota also said it will stop producing the affected vehicles at several North American plants for one week starting Feb. 1.
Toyota declined to say how long the sales suspension would last. "Absolutely as short as possible," said Mike Michels, a spokesman. "It's not months. We hope to get the remedy finalized, tested and deployed to the dealers as soon as we can," he said.
The sales halt comes after growing reports of accelerator problems with Toyota vehicles. Safety Research and Strategies, a Massachusetts-based safety research firm, has identified 2,274 incidents of sudden unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles causing 275 crashes and at least 18 fatalities since 1999.
Mr. Michels declined to comment on the numbers. "I would say those data, based on the very diverse nature of his sources, are impossible to verify," he said.
Until recently, Toyota had said it believed the problem mainly stemmed from floor mats getting jammed against the gas pedal, but later said its accelerator assembly's electronics could be a factor as well.
Last week, Toyota recalled 2.3 million vehicles in the U.S. affected by the accelerator assembly problem. That was on top of an earlier recall of 4.2 million vehicles to fix the floor mat issue. About 1.7 million vehicles are subject to both recalls.
Toyota will expand its recall of vehicles with defective gas pedals to Europe, a person close to the matter said Monday. The person said Toyota expects to recall roughly two million vehicles in Europe.
"As a part of the recall we are obliged to suspend [U.S.] sales if we do not have a remedy," said Mr. Michels.
Such a large and public quality problem is a big blow for Toyota, a company that last year passed General Motors Co. to become the world's largest auto maker by sales and for years leveraged its reputation for quality to pull customers from GM, Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Group LLC.
"This is a disaster for Toyota," said Aaron Bragman, an automotive analyst at IHS Global Insight. "It is exactly what Toyota does not need when the market is starting to turn around and people are returning to showrooms. I understand Toyota is trying to go for putting safety before profits. This is such an extreme reaction."
The sales halt also adds to the business troubles Toyota now faces. The deep downturn in U.S. auto sales in the past two years left the company with excess production capacity and idle workers—a situation more familiar to Detroit's Big Three. For the fiscal year ended March 31, 2009, Toyota reported a loss of $4.9 billion, its first loss in 59 years.
The sales halt comes just as the U.S. auto market was showing signs of recovering.
While the move is sure to ding Toyota's reputation, the company enjoys a deep pool of loyal customers built up over decades of making high-quality vehicles. Moreover, other car makers have overcome serious safety issues, such as Ford's problem with tires on its sport-utility vehicles in the 1990s that sometimes saw their treads separate, causing some of the SUVs to roll over.
Toyota first identified problems with the accelerator pedals on the Tundra pickup in March 2007. After months of testing, the company determined that the problem was caused by the material in the accelerators' friction lever and made a change.
At that time, Toyota considered it to be a drivability issue unrelated to safety, according to its filing with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. A similar issue then arose in Europe in December 2008 in the right-hand-drive versions of two small Toyota cars, the Aygo and Yaris.
The company's investigation found that condensation from heaters caused increased friction in the gas pedal, making it stick in some cases. Toyota lengthened the arm of the friction lever and changed its materials on all vehicles produced in Europe using the subject accelerator pedals starting in mid-August 2009.
Beginning in October last year, Toyota became aware of sticking accelerator pedals in the U.S. and Canada. The company realized that the material used in the gas pedals was the same as in Europe, prompting last week's recall, according to Toyota's submission to NHTSA.
CTS Corp., a company based in Elkhart, Ind., manufactured the accelerator pedals involved in the recall.
Toyota decided to halt sales of the vehicles "after weighing possible consequences of not suspending sales and production of those models and coming up with the ultimate remedy for the problem quickly," said a senior Toyota executive who did not want to be identified.
"We were fully aware that short of this action we could be accused of selling lethal products," this executive said.
Dealers said they still have vehicles with the defective accelerator pedal on their lots and the sales suspension stops those vehicles from being sold until a solution has been found.
As part of last year's recall involving pedal entrapment with floor mats, Toyota said it would install a new brake override system in all its vehicles so that if both brake and accelerator are depressed the brake will take precedence.
The new software became standard in all Toyota and Lexus products starting with production of the Lexus ES350 and Camry this month. It is to be incorporated into production of most models by the end of 2010.
Only vehicles in the company's Toyota division were affected by the recall, not its Lexus and Scion products.
The vehicles recalled and affected by the sales halt are: the 2009-2010 model years of the RAV4 crossover vehicle and Corolla and Matrix sedans; the 2005-2010 Avalon sedan; the 2007-2010 Toyota Camry, excluding hybrid versions; the 2007-2010 Tundra pickup; the 2008-2010 Sequoia sport-utility vehicle; and the 2010 Highlander SUV.
"It's going to be tough for a few days," said Earl Stewart, who owns a Toyota dealership in North Palm Beach, Fla.
"Hopefully it will only be a few days. We hope they have the fix."
Mr. Stewart said dealers have heard unofficially that Toyota may be close to introducing a tentative fix. Toyota spokesman Mike Goss said the company is working to quickly develop a solution.
The news came out after Tuesday's U.S. stock market close and shortly before the Wednesday Tokyo opening.
The company's shares were hit hard in the first half hour of Japan trading, falling 3% to 3,755 yen per share, sharply underperforming the Nikkei index, which was roughly flat.
"It's particularly negative that the suspended models include really popular ones like Corolla and RAV4. This recall problem is not only damaging to the company's reputation, but it could also hurt its U.S. sales figures," said SMBC Friend Research Center analyst Shigeru Matsumura.
Write to Kate Linebaugh at email@example.com and NORIHIKO SHIROUZU at firstname.lastname@example.org
I'm surprised I'm the first one to post about this. So, ontd_p'ers are you driving a recalled vehicle? And what do you think about what Toyota has done to try to solve this issue? Also, do you have any ideas as to what might be causing it? My money is on short in the computer that controls cruise control.
Or it could be the fuel injectors. I forgot to mention that my 2001 Oldsmobile Alero took off on me and my mom a couple of times. Mainly when you are in park or going really slow. It kicked up the RPM to 2. Mechanic had to take apart my engine block to find out that three of the fuel injectors were broken. He replaced all six of them and since no runaway car or gas smell.
Tips for surviving the Toyota Christine:
DO NOT TURN OFF THE VEHICLE YOU WILL LOSE POWER STEERING
Shift the vehicle into NEUTRAL, SLAM ON YOUR BRAKES, and Pull the EMERGENCY BRAKE
This is what ALL the experts are saying to do if you find yourself in this position. The car in neutral cannot accelerate and it will lose speed. Slamming on your brake and pulling the emergency brake will increase the friction and cause the vehicle to slow down further. When the car has come to a complete stop then you can turn it off.
I do not know if you should restart it or not. I suggest calling the cops/insurance company.