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Toyota conducts safety tests on all SUV models

TOKYO (AP) - Toyota announced safety tests on all its sport-utility vehicle models in a sweeping effort Thursday to reassure buyers after Consumer Reports warned against buying the 2010 Lexus GX 460 in the automaker's latest public relations debacle.

Toyota Motor Corp., plagued by recalls since October and accusations it responded too slowly to problems, said it had yet to decide whether to recall the GX 460 SUV, sold mainly in North America but also in the Middle East, Russia and some other nations.

Toyota stopped selling the GX 460 in North America on Tuesday
within hours of the Consumer Reports warning, acting relatively
quickly after being criticized as slow in responding to consumer
complaints on faulty gas pedals, defective floor mats and braking
software glitches.

On Thursday, Toyota said the halt to GX 460 sales would be
extended to all markets. The model was not sold in Japan.

Toyota officials in Tokyo said the company was carrying out
safety tests that were as close as possible to those of Consumer
Reports, including testing the vehicle's response when the driver
makes a turn and releases the gas pedal. The company says it does
not yet know what the possible problems could be, but was working
on it so that Consumer Reports would be able to retest the GX 460
and give it a satisfactory rating.

"We are now testing the GX 460 to determine if any problem
exists," said Paul Nolasco, a Toyota spokesman in Tokyo. "If we
find a problem, we will fix it."

Analysts said Toyota was trying to avoid the surge of criticism
it faced earlier when it was accused of dragging its feet over gas
pedal and other defects. They said the unusually prompt move
underlined how seriously Toyota's reputation had been battered.

"One way is to see Toyota's precautionary measure in a positive
light, but there is also the view: Here we go again with yet
another problem," said Koji Endo, managing director of Advanced
Research Japan Co. in Tokyo.

"Being categorized by an influential magazine like Consumers
Reports as a 'Don't Buy' or 'a safety risk' can't be good."

Endo said Toyota's recall crisis would grow, further damaging
its once-sterling reputation, if the problem turns out to be
structural, rather than a more easily fixed software flaw.

Consumer Reports, widely read by many car buyers because of its
reputation as fair, has raised red flags over Toyotas previously.
In January, the magazine pulled its "recommended" rating on eight
vehicles recalled by the automaker due to faulty gas pedals.

For the GX 460, Consumer Reports said the problem occurred
during tests on its track. In a standard test, the driver approached a turn unusually fast, then released the accelerator pedal to simulate the response of an alarmed driver. This caused the rear of the vehicle to slide outward.

Under normal circumstances, the electronic stability control
should quickly correct the loss of control and keep the SUV on its
intended path.

But with the GX 460, the stability control took too long to adjust, which could cause a rollover accident if one of the sliding wheels were to strike the curb or another obstacle, according to Consumer Reports.

Toyota said it sold about 6,000 of the GX 460 worldwide - 5,400
of them in North America. The manufacturer behind the Prius hybrid
and Camry sedan makes a wide range of sport-utility vehicles,
including the RAV4, Land Cruiser and 4Runner.

Since October, Toyota has recalled more than 8 million vehicles
worldwide and has promised to be more transparent and responsive to
consumer complaints.

Toyota faces a $16.4 million fine from the U.S. Transportation
Department and has until April 19 to decide whether to contest the
penalty.

Toyota shares lost 0.8 percent in Tokyo Thursday, closing at
3,710 yen ($40).

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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