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NHTSA fielding complaints about 2009-10 Toyota Corolla steering

Tue, 09 Feb 2010

Toyota Motor Corp. faces yet another possible federal investigation, this time of the electric power steering in 2009 and 2010 Corollas.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is considering a formal investigation of alleged defects reported in the compact car, agency spokeswoman Karen Aldana said Monday.

Automotive News found that the Corolla has been the subject of 83 power-steering complaints since April 2008, 76 of which have reported that the vehicle unexpectedly veers to the left or right at 40 miles an hour and up.

Complainants have compared the movement to being buffeted by strong winds, sliding on black ice, or hydroplaning. They said that after trying to straighten the car, it often overcorrects--requiring the driver to use a tight, persistent, two-handed grip on the wheel to travel in a straight line.

10 injuries, six accidents

"If you take your eye off the road for a second, the car will drift into another lane," said one driver who lodged an Oct. 18 complaint.

The complaints cite 10 injuries resulting from six accidents, which sometimes left the vehicle upside down, at the bottom of a cliff or in a ditch.

"This was the most terrifying thing that has ever happened to me in my life as well as my grandchildren!" a Fayetteville, N.C. woman wrote NHTSA Sept. 11 after she said her Corolla veered "on its own" to the right, hurtled down a cliff and hit a tree and fence. NHTSA is speaking with Toyota, reviewing consumer complaints and looking at reports from the automaker about property damage and product defects, Aldana said in an e-mail.

"We are continuing to review and gather information to determine if it warrants a formal investigation," Aldana said.

Aldana's e-mail was in response to an Automotive News analysis of consumer complaints to NHTSA about the 2009-10 Corolla.

Toyota spokesman Brian Lyons didn't respond to numerous e-mail and phone requests for comment Monday and Tuesday.

Mounting scrutiny

Toyota already faces investigations and recalls of more than a dozen other models.

Toyota on Tuesday announced a worldwide recall of 437,000 hybrids, mostly of the 2010 Prius. NHTSA opened an investigation last week of braking problems with the vehicle.

NHTSA also is investigating unintended acceleration in a dozen Toyota models, more than 8 million of which have been recalled globally since October.

And since November, NHTSA has been investigating reports of engine stalls in the 2006 Corolla.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has been sensitive to questions raised in Congress about NHTSA's effectiveness. He is scheduled to testify Wednesday before the House Oversight Committee, and House Energy Committee investigators have requested NHTSA documents dating to 2000.

Tuesday, after Toyota announced its hybrid recall, LaHood issued a statement that said: "When I spoke with Toyota President Akio Toyoda last week, he assured me that his company takes U.S. safety concerns very seriously. The U.S. DOT will remain in constant communication with Toyota to hold them to that promise."

Said Sean Kane, president of the Safety Research & Strategies consulting firm: "Toyota's Teflon image for reliability is going out the window faster than anyone can salvage. ... People are logically asking, how can it have problems with so many models?"

Toyota switched from hydraulic to electric power steering with its 2009 Corolla, which first went on sale in February 2008.

Kane, who is scheduled to testify Wednesday at a congressional hearing on Toyota's problems, said that the accumulation of so many serious complaints over 21 months without an investigation raises questions about NHTSA's effectiveness.

Said Kane: "How could NHTSA's surveillance miss this apparent pattern?" he said.

The Department of Transportation, which oversees NHTSA, said it receives 30,000 complaints a year, each of which it reviews within a single business day.

"NHTSA takes these very seriously and opens investigations based on the frequency and severity of the complaints," the e-mailed statement said.

NHTSA currently is conducting 40 investigations of possible defects, three of which involve Toyota, Transportation said. Over the last three years, NHTSA said its probes have resulted in 524 recalls involving 23.5 million vehicles.

By Neil Roland- Automotive News