Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Reported highway fatalities associated with runaway Toyota vehicles surged in recent weeks as the world’s largest carmaker revealed that its U.S. sales continued tumbling.

Automakers on Tuesday released their U.S. sales figures for February — the first full month since Toyota’s recall woes hit the headlines. Nearly all the major companies except Toyota, whose sales declined almost 9 percent, reported double-digit percentage increases over sales in February 2009. Ford Motor Co. led the way with a 43 percent jump, which let it seize the monthly top spot from General Motors Co. for the first time since the late 1990s.

Meanwhile, as Toyota executives were questioned by members of Congress for the third time in two weeks, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) provided more bad news for the Japanese auto giant.

NHTSA announced that the number of fatalities unofficially blamed on unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles since 2000 had risen by more than 50 percent since Feb. 15.

Through Feb. 28, NHTSA had received 43 complaints of accidents involving 52 deaths, the U.S. Department of Transportation reported Tuesday. As of Feb. 15, the numbers were 26 incidents and 34 fatalities.

“It is important to note that these are not confirmed. They are allegations at present,” said Olivia Alair, a spokeswoman at the Transportation Department. NHTSA routinely receives a spike in complaints after recalls are announced, she added.

Three-quarters of the fatal accidents (32 out of 43) were reported to NHTSA during the four months since Toyota recalled nearly 4 million vehicles in October for gas pedals becoming entrapped by floor mats. Twenty-six fatal incidents were reported after Toyota recalled more than 2 million vehicles for “sticky pedals” in January.

Forty-one fatalities occurred in vehicles equipped with electronic throttle control systems, which, Toyota officials have insisted, have not been implicated as a source of sudden unintended accelerations.

Toyota’s showrooms began hurting in earnest in February, with U.S. sales declining 8.7 percent. The overall drop included a plunge of 20 percent in purchases of Camry sedans, the top-selling passenger car in the American market for the past seven years. In late January, Toyota temporarily suspended the sale and production of the Camry and seven other vehicles, which it recalled because of “sticky” gas pedals.

To boost lagging sales, Toyota on Tuesday offered 0 percent financing over five years on 80 percent of its lineup. Return customers who already own Toyota products also would receive two years of free maintenance on a new purchase.

Other automakers had no such difficulties selling vehicles in February. GM (12 percent), Nissan (29 percent), Honda (13 percent) and Hyundai (10 percent) all experienced strong gains over sales in February 2009, when the recession ravaged all automakers.

Even Chrysler LLC experienced a sales gain of 0.5 percent last month, its first year-over-year gain since the recession began in December 2007.

But the biggest winner was Ford, which sold 142,006 cars and light trucks, compared with 99,050 in February 2009. Ford’s surging numbers topped GM’s monthly unit sales for this February (141,535), the first time Ford has done so since July 1998, when GM was hampered by a labor strike.

“The strength of our new products and Ford’s leadership in quality, fuel efficiency, safety, smart design and value are resonating with our customers,” said Ken Czubay, a Ford sales and marketing executive.

By contrast, Toyota’s sales dipped from 109,582 in February 2009 to 100,027 last month.

Toyota executives appeared Tuesday before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. Early in the day, Toyota President Akio Toyoda, who apologized for Toyota’s safety failures in testimony last week before a House committee, told reporters in Beijing that “some people just got too big-headed and focused too excessively on profit.”

At the Senate hearing, committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV, West Virginia Democrat, agreed.

“It is clear that somewhere along the way public safety took a back seat and corporate profits drove the company’s decisions,” he said.

“The Toyota business model is broken,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a former Republican representative from Illinois, told the Senate committee. But he predicted “changes in the way they do business.”

Yoshimi Inaba, president of Toyota Motor North America, told the committee that Rodney Slater, who served as transportation secretary in the Clinton administration, would “help lead” Toyota’s newly established Special Committee for Global Quality. Mr. Inaba also pledged to “deploy ‘SWAT teams’ of technicians to make on-site inspections of unintended acceleration reports as quickly as possible.”

Echoing Mr. Toyoda’s testimony last week, Mr. Inaba insisted that Toyota has “never found a defect” in its electronic throttle control system “that has caused unintended acceleration.”

But Toyota would continue its own research as well as the funding of an outside project by an engineering and scientific-consulting firm.

Mr. Inaba said Toyota would make “brake override” systems standard on all new models sold in North America and would install the systems on seven existing models. The brake override system cuts engine power when the accelerator and brake pedals are both depressed.

Mr. LaHood said his department is “looking at the possibility of recommending the brake override system in all manufactured automobiles.”

Worldwide, Toyota has recalled 8.5 million vehicles, including more than 6 million in the United States. A federal grand jury in New York has opened a criminal investigation of Toyota, and the Securities and Exchange Commission has issued subpoenas for documents.

Toyota, whose market value has dropped $34 billion since Jan. 21, when it announced its “sticky pedal” recall of 2.3 million cars and trucks, now faces at least 94 class-action lawsuits and 27 individual lawsuits related to unintended acceleration.

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