By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 14, 2010; A14
Toyota temporarily halted sales of its 2010 Lexus GX 460 on Tuesday after Consumer Reports labeled the sport-utility vehicles a "safety risk."
In a rare move, the influential magazine warned consumers against the vehicles because of the way the car slides during certain maneuvers, noting that those slides could be a prelude to rolling over. The publication has not issued such a warning since 2001.
"We believe that in real-world driving, that situation could lead to a rollover accident, which could cause serious injury or death," Consumer Reports said in a blog post.
Some auto safety advocates said the finding by the magazine highlights weaknesses in the federal government's system for reviewing new models.
NHTSA has not yet completed safety testing of the 2010 GX 460, according to the Web site SaferCar.gov.
Moreover, critics said, the type of problem turned up by the magazine would not have been found by the government because its tests are less involved.
"The government has a rollover course that they send vehicles through, but it's not a very rigorous test," said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety.
The National Highway Safety Traffic Administration "advises drivers of the 2010 Lexus GX 460 SUV to use care and caution," the agency said in a statement. It said it is conducting tests to verify the vehicle's adherence to federal standards and to better understand the results of the magazine test.
In a statement late Tuesday, Toyota said engineering teams were testing the GX 460 using Consumer Reports' methodology.
"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 vice president and general manager.
The company sold 4,787 of the SUVs in the first three months of this year, 1 percent of Toyota sales, according to Edmunds.com.
The Consumer Reports finding follows months of bad publicity for Toyota stemming from the recall of millions of vehicles linked to unintended acceleration. It comes as Toyota has spent millions on consumer discounts and television advertising in an effort to revive its reputation.
In the magazine's tests, drivers take the car through a situation like one a driver might experience when exiting a highway and entering an off-ramp. At about 60 miles per hour, the driver enters a turn and then quickly lifts his or her foot off of the accelerator.
The tests were conducted by four different drivers, and in each case, the back end of the vehicle slid out.
"It was unanimous," said Jake Fisher, senior engineer at Consumer Reports and one of the test drivers. "We asked each other, 'Did you have that happen, too?' It was quite surprising."
"I've been testing cars for Consumer Reports for 11 years," he said. "I've tested hundreds of vehicles. No SUV has ever had a tail slide out so abruptly or so far."
It is not the first time the magazine has weighed in during the controversy over Toyota safety. In the wake of a recall earlier this year related to sticky gas pedals, Consumer Reports suspended its "recommended" status on eight models and has yet to reinstate it.
The nature of the problem with the GX 460 differs from unintended acceleration, but is potentially very dangerous, the magazine said. With the GX 460, the vehicle's high center of gravity heightens concerns that it could roll over in such a situation, reviewers said.
The GX460 is equipped with electronic stability control, a system that is supposed to prevent such handling difficulties through selective braking and reductions of engine power. But the system doesn't intervene quickly enough, the magazine said.
"We're in the process of testing the 2010 Lexus GX 460 SUV to ensure it complies with NHTSA's safety standard for electronic stability control, and to understand better the results obtained by Consumers Union," the federal safety agency said. "It is our belief that electronic stability control should prevent the kind of fishtail event described."