Toyota Halts Lexus SUV Sales After Consumer Reports Warning

Toyota Motor (TM) is halting sales of its recently introduced Lexus GX 460 sports utility vehicle after road tests by a leading consumer magazine showed the vehicle be susceptible to rolling over in accident-avoidance maneuvers.

On Tuesday, Consumer Reports said its engineers encountered handling problems at its test track that they believe could lead to real-world rollover accidents.

"As a result, we are urging consumers not to buy the GX 460 until the problem has been fixed," Consumer Reports wrote in a blog post at its site. The last vehicle to receive a similar warning was the 2001 Mitsubishi Montero Limited, which the magazine rated "not acceptable."

Among the 95 SUVs in CR's current ratings, no other slid as far as the GX 460, CR said.

Taking It Seriously

"We are taking the situation with the GX 460 very seriously and are determined to identify and correct the issue Consumer Reports identified," said Mark Templin, Lexus Group general manager, in the statement. Toyota said it will provide customers who have purchased the model and are concerned about driving their vehicle a loaner car until a remedy is available.

When subjected to a standard track test involving driving the vehicle through a turn as the driver lifts his foot off the accelerator, the rear of the GX 460 slid out until it was almost sideways before the electronic stability control system was able to regain control, the magazine said.

"In a real world situation, by that time, the car can hit the curb or the side of the road and that's the situation where, in a vehicle like that, it could cause it to roll over," said Gabriel Shenhar, senior auto test engineer at Consumer Reports, who was one of four testers to experience the problem.

Toyota Will Conduct Further Tests

As with nearly all new SUVs, the GX 460 has standard electronic stability control, a system designed to prevent vehicles from sliding out in a turn. These systems, which work by applying individual brakes and cutting engine power to help keep the vehicle on its intended path, have generally been effective in the vehicles Consumer Reports has tested, the magazine said. But, CR noted "the GX's system doesn't intervene quickly enough to stop the slide, and the rear end swings around too far."

To confirm its results, CR paid for the use of another GX 460 from Lexus and experienced the same problem, it said. The magazine noted that some 5,000 GX 460s, which have a base price starting at about $52,000, have been sold in the three months the model has been on sale in the U.S.

CR said it has notified Toyota, and the automaker is investigating the problem. CR also notified the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of its findings.

Concerned With "Don't Buy" Report

In a brief response posted on its website, Toyota said it was "concerned with the results of Consumer Reports testing" and its "don't buy" recommendation. The company noted it conducts its own tests, which it believes provide a good indication of how its cars and trucks will perform for consumers. "However, we will try to duplicate the Consumer Reports' test to determine if appropriate steps need to be taken," Toyota said.

Toyota has suffered from revelations about several quality and safety issues since it recalled millions of vehicles last fall for acceleration problems believed to be associated with bulky rubber floor mats. Other recalls followed, including one for sticky gas pedals which led to the NHTSA fining Toyota a maximum $16.4 million for failing to act quickly enough in notifying the agency of the problem. Toyota has until Monday to accept or contest the penalty.

It remains to be seen how this latest issue will affect sales of Toyota and Lexus vehicles. The world's largest auto maker saw its sales rise some 40% in March thanks to generous incentives, including zero-interest loans and cheap leases. But the Lexus GX 460 is a low-volume seller, and given Americans' wariness about buying large SUVs after gasoline prices spiked to more than $4 a gallon in 2008, chances are, this latest problem will just roll off Toyota's back.