U.S. Finds No Defect; Closes Probe of Toyota Corolla Steering

By John Crawley | May 23, 2011

U.S. auto regulators have found no defect in the electronic steering mechanisms of recent model Toyota Motor Co. Corollas, a boost for the Japanese automaker as it seeks to put two years of massive recalls behind it.

The compact sedan is a mainstay of Toyota’s lineup with 266,000 vehicles sold in the United States last year, only behind Toyota’s larger Camry sedan.

Drivers of model-year 2009 and 2010 Corollas had complained of drift and difficulty maintaining direction at highway speeds. The automaker has already responded with safety checks and adjustments to make the steering feel less sensitive.

A defect finding by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and subsequent recall would have been a further black eye for Toyota.

The automaker recalled more than 19 million cars and trucks worldwide over a two-year period ending in January after a U.S. investigation of acceleration problems blamed on loose floor mats that could jam the accelerator and pedals that did not spring back as designed.

The recalls, subsequent lawsuits, congressional investigations and hearings, and follow-on investigations, rocked the company’s reputation for quality and hurt sales.

The quiet closing of the Corolla probe on May 3 comes three months after NHTSA concluded with fanfare that electronic throttle systems did not contribute to the acceleration problems.

The nearly 15-month steering investigation also included the Matrix model and covered nearly 750,000 vehicles manufactured in the United States.

Toyota said in a statement to Reuters that it was gratified regulators did not flag any system failure or performance concern, and recognized the company’s efforts to address the problem with customers.

Electronic power steering was introduced in redesigned Corollas beginning in 2009. NHTSA records show Toyota soon began receiving complaints from motorists about the amount of attention needed to maintain proper heading at highway speeds.

Toyota told dealers to check wheel alignment, tire pressure and wear and vehicle suspension for possible problems. If none were found, the automaker instructed dealers to replace the steering unit’s computerized brain with a “retuned” system intended to make the steering feel less sensitive.

Although NHTSA said in the documents it found no defects, closure of the investigation does not mean one does not exist. It will continue to monitor complaints and “take further action” if necessary.

NHTSA cited more than 900 consumer complaints to the government and Toyota over the Corolla and more than 4,100 warranty claims relating to steering problems alleged as pulling or drift at highway speeds.

More than 150 complaints were dismissed as duplicative or not relevant to the probe, as were six of eight reported crashes and all 11 injuries that had been alleged.

NHTSA said other factors, like icy roads and over-steering, were more likely to have contributed to accidents. (Reporting by John Crawley; Editing by Matthew Lewis and Tim Dobbyn)

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