Another Toyota Safety Problem and Recall

Posted: August 31, 2010 in General Motors, Recalls, Toyota
Tags: , , , , , ,

Is your circuit board cracked? Soldered joints giving you problems? Is the glass coating on your varistor broken? If so, you’re not alone.

More than 1,000 complaints have been filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) about the 2005-2007 Toyota Corolla and Matrix models. The problem is that the engine can stall at any speed, without warning, and not restart. Failure to start, the check engine light on and “harsh shifting” are also listed as “symptoms” of the problem.

2008 Toyota Matrix

Woopsee…. Another Toyota safety and quality problem and yes, another reluctant recall. This issue has been floating out there for almost five years. Toyota says the problem rests with an electronic control module (ECM), a tiny circuit board that controls the operation of the engine. This time, it seems the source of the problem is clear and relatively easy to remedy.

The new recall announced by Toyota on August 26, 2010 covers 1.1 million Corolla and Matrix vehicles for model years 2005-2008 with the 1ZZ-FE engine and two-wheel drive. On the same day, GM announced a recall of 200,000 Pontiac Vibes (a mechanical twin to the Matrix) for the same model years. All the vehicles were made at the GM-Toyota joint venture, New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc. in Freemont, California.

2007 Toyota Corolla

In total, 1.3 million Toyota Corollas, Matrixes and Pontiac Vibes are potentially affected by this problem. Previously, Toyota had issued four (yes, four) Technical Service Bulletins (TSBs) addressing the issue and instructing dealers to replace the ECM to solve the problem; so it’s clear Toyota has known about it for some time now.

2006 Pontiac Matrix - A mechanical twin to the Toyota Matrix

The NHTSA says that there have been six crashes reported with no injuries or deaths. Toyota says it knows of three unconfirmed accidents and one minor injury. Maybe there are more?

Toyota North America’s regulatory affairs manager Chris Santucci said, before the recall, that the company did not believe the alleged defect “creates an unreasonable risk to motor vehicle safety.”

Huh? So I’m cruising in traffic and suddenly my engine shuts down. I lose power assist for steering and brakes and the car stops. In my experience, a sudden loss of critical functions can easily create a dangerous situation that could lead to a serious accident.

I would classify this kind of systemic failure while driving as an “unreasonable risk to motor vehicle safety” – just to borrow a phrase.

There was more pre-recall spin from Toyota: “We understand that some customers have been inconvenienced by engine ECM failure and some have reported engine stalling.” Just an “inconvenience,” huh? Oh yes, now it is considered a safety defect.

Ah, but how things change in just a couple weeks. Toyota’s chief quality officer (love the new title) for North America, Steve St. Angelo, has the revised corporate spin: “Our goal [of the recall] is to help ensure that Toyota drivers are completely confident in the safety and reliability of their vehicles.” Don’t you feel better now about your Toyota? I don’t.

The potential defect was just recently highlighted by the New York Times and Consumer Reports. In an August 23, 2010 article, “Stalling Problems Could Affect 1.2 Million Toyotas,” The Times quotes one NHTSA complaint: “I was driving 60 mph on the freeway and was almost hit from behind [when the engine stalled]. Another time I was turning left at an intersection and just made it through, but cars were honking and almost hit me.”

The Times also reported that some customers were forced to pay $1,000 to have the ECM replaced if their car had passed the 80,000 mile mark on their powertrain warranty. Toyota says that the recall letter to owners will give instructions for “reimbursement consideration instructions.”

I’m not comforted by Toyota’s endless assurances about their dedication to customer safety and satisfaction. With 12.3 million cars under recall, it’s hard to keep track of which car has which problems. Is it the floor mats or the throttle body module or both? Maybe its a steering shaft or a spare tire falling out of the bottom of a minivan. The 2001-2003 RAV4 had problems with its ECM that caused rough shifting and transmission damage. Is this déjà vu?

I’m sure there are more Toyota recalls, and if you’re concerned about your car, Toyota has a web page and an large portion of its website dedicated to listing and the details of its recalls: Toyota.com/recall

Just like any other brand of cars, there are whole user groups, blogs and Quixotic crusaders who have problems with Toyota, whether it’s hardware or software. Not everything is well in Toyota City. I think Toyota has lost its shiny, happy, rock-solid image permanently. The quest to be the biggest cost them their once-deserved reputation for quality and reliability. It certainly cost them any design flair too. With heated competition from all its competitors, it seems that the once unstoppable Toyota juggernaut is finally dead in the water.

Have you noticed the desperate commercials trying to get rid of the current inventory of terminally-boring vehicles? I’m hard-pressed to find any compelling products from Toyota. And I feel like a zombie from the endless commercials filled with zeros: Zero down, zero percent financing, zero drive-offs, zero security deposits, blah, blah, blah.

Those kinds of ads used used to be the domain of GM, Ford or Chrysler. These days, although Toyota is still the largest brand in the US market, customers seem more willing than ever to give Ford, GM and the Korean Twins (sorry Chrysler) a chance. Toyota isn’t giving up its US crown without a fight, but it’s going to take some stellar, trouble-free products to lure customers back. Don’t hold your breath.

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