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This Time Around, Swift Action from Toyota on SUV

The chief engineer in Japan for the Lexus GX 460 sport utility vehicle was roused from bed early Tuesday by a phone call from Toyota engineers in the United States.

Tustin Toyota dealership in Tustin, California.
Getty Images
Tustin Toyota dealership in Tustin, California.

The company had gotten advance notice from Consumer Reports magazine that it would warn buyers not to buy the vehicle. The magazine said its safety tests had determined the GX 460 had a dangerous handling problem that caused its rear end to swerve and had a risk of rollover.

After absorbing the predawn news, a Lexus spokesman said, the Japanese engineer immediately promised to get on it. Later on Tuesday, Toyota announced it was temporarily halting sales of the $52,000 luxury S.U.V., demonstrating that it had learned the lessons of dawdling during a safety crisis — and also reflecting the influence Consumer Reports exerts.

While Toyota’s step might have seemed an overreaction under other circumstances, it had no choice given the current climate, auto analysts said Wednesday. “Safety problems and Toyota seem to be lumped together in the zeitgeist right now,” said James Bell, an executive market analyst at Kelley Blue Book, which tracks vehicle trends.

Through the years, Consumer Reports’ positive recommendations of Toyota vehicles — the company makes Toyota and Lexus brands — were a factor in the Japanese automaker’s rise to second place in the American car market, behind General Motors. Many car buyers walk into the company’s showrooms carrying the magazine’s car-buying issue.

But in late January, Consumer Reports suspended some of its positive recommendations when Toyota temporarily stopped building and selling eight models involved in a recall for sticking accelerator pedals. The company has since resumed production and sales of those vehicles, but the magazine’s positive recommendations have not returned.

Ever since, Toyota has been working closely with the magazine’s editors, and Toyota executives said last month that they hoped the return of the positive, or recommended, ratings on those vehicles was imminent. That might help explain why Toyota moved only hours after hearing the magazine’s recommendation on the GX without being prodded by federal safety regulators.

On Wednesday, as Lexus dealers provided loaner cars to owners who felt uncomfortable driving their GX models, Toyota engineers were focused on fixing the problem. The engineers were going over the Consumer Reports’ data, video footage and other information about the tests the vehicle had failed. Consumer Reports provided Toyota with the materials, said Ken Weine, a spokesman for the magazine’s parent, Consumers Union.

The handling problem arises if the driver of a GX eases off the gas pedal while driving quickly through a sharp turn, the magazine said. That causes the rear end of the vehicle to slide toward the outside of the turn, a condition called “trailing throttle oversteer.”

David Champion, the senior director of Consumer Reports auto testing, has theorized the control system was at fault, but Toyota had reached no conclusion on Wednesday.

“Our engineering teams are vigorously testing the GX using Consumer Reports’ specific parameters to identify how we can make the GX’s performance even better,” Mark Templin, the general manager of Lexus, said in a statement posted on the division’s Web site.

Consumer Reports said it would not let the company use its testing track because of a longstanding policy of barring manufacturers from its test facilities. “We test for consumers. They are our constituency,” Mr. Weine said. “We don’t test for manufacturers or the government.”

That means the automaker must try to reproduce the turn and surface at a test facility in Japan, in part relying on satellite photos from Google, said the Lexus spokesman, Bill Kwong. “We are going to try and duplicate it as much as possible,” he said.

If they can do so, Mr. Kwong said Toyota engineers would check tires and the vehicle’s suspension as well as the responsiveness of the electronic stability control system, which is meant to stabilize the car.

The company’s fast response to the problem, analysts said, showed that the lessons of the last half year, in which Toyota was criticized by federal officials, members of Congress and lawyers for taking too long to deal with safety issues that led to the recall of six million vehicles in the United States and eight million worldwide.

Lexus had largely escaped the taint of the recalls even though the highest-profile accident involving a stuck accelerator, involving a former California state trooper and his family, took place in a Lexus ES 350 sedan. Over all, Lexus sales were up in 2010, even before Toyota initiated generous incentives in response to the recalls that caused its sales to soar in March.

And it had high hopes for the latest version of the GX, introduced in December and built at a high-tech plant in Tahara, Japan. Lexus has sold 4,787 GX models so far this year, up 180 percent from 2009, when the previous version was phased out.

Based on the same frame as the Toyota 4Runner sport utility, the GX starts at $52,800 with destination charges and features a 4.6-liter V-8 engine.

Before Consumer Reports “don’t buy” designation, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s defects database showed only one consumer complaint about a sliding problem with the vehicle, dated March 10. That complaint had not appeared on the database until Wednesday. A second customer also wrote to the agency on Tuesday, asking for information about the newly publicized problem, the database showed.

-- Nick Bunkley contributed reporting from Detroit and Christopher Jensen from Bethlehem, N.H.