Toyota vehicles in another federal safety probe

Federal safety officials have opened a probe into two models of Toyota Motor Corp. vehicles after drivers complained that their cars inexplicably stalled in traffic, sometimes at highway speeds.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration posted a document this week launching the investigation into Toyota’s Matrix and Corolla cars. It’s the latest in a string of quality-related issues for the Japanese automaker in recent months.

The document cited 26 complaints from drivers of 2006 model year Matrix and Corolla vehicles. Consumers “allege stalls occurring randomly while driving, including some on highways and some in intersections,” the agency said.

The new investigation is another blow to an automaker that has seen its long-held reputation for quality come under attack amid a flurry of safety-related recalls and investigations this year.

Last week Toyota said it would recall more than 4.2 million Toyota and Lexus vehicles in the U.S. and Canada because their design increases the risk that they could suddenly accelerate out of control. In addition, Toyota recalled 110,000 Tundra pickups because of a rust problem that could cause the spare tire to fall onto the road, creating a hazard for other vehicles.

Toyota has announced recalls of more than 4.8 million cars and trucks in the U.S. and Canada since January. The company’s second-largest annual total of recalled vehicles over the last decade was 1.1 million in 2004.

In 2000, Toyota recalled just 8,379 vehicles.

In addition to the Corolla and Matrix probe, which covers 397,000 vehicles, NHTSA is investigating the 2003 Sequoia based on allegations that the electronic stability control system seizes control of the brakes at inappropriate times. That investigation targets 68,289 sport utility vehicles.

Toyota spokesman John Hanson acknowledged the new investigation of Corolla and Matrix cars but declined to speculate on the potential causes.

“It’s the first step,” he said. “They’re asking us for a preliminary evaluation. We’ll submit that to them and they’ll decide whether to take this to the next level.”

NHTSA’s records of complaints show numerous incidents of Corolla and Matrix vehicles stalling, often in situations in which other vehicles could strike the car. One such event details a Corolla that stalled in heavy traffic in December of last year, blocking a right-turn lane for two hours until it could be towed.

In another complaint, a consumer writes, “you NHTSA folks might want to give a call over to Toyota NA corporate headquarters before some young people have there [sic] lives destroyed by an engine stall in high speed commuter traffic.”

The agency indicates that the problem could be linked to the electronic control module, or onboard computer. Toyota on its own issued a technical service bulletin to its dealers two years ago calling for replacement of that component in Corolla or Matrix vehicles experiencing “harsh shift.”

An additional service bulletin, released at the same time, applies to models experiencing a “no start” condition.

Neither the Corolla nor the Matrix is included in the massive recall announced last week. That affects the 2007-10 Camry, the 2004-09 Prius, the 2005-10 Avalon, the 2005-10 Tacoma and the 2007-10 Tundra, as well as the 2007-10 Lexus ES 350 and the 2006-10 Lexus IS 250 and IS 350.

Toyota has said those vehicles could accelerate out of control because the gas pedal is prone to being entrapped by the floor mat.

The recall followed an August crash of a Lexus ES in San Diego County that claimed four lives and drew national attention to the issue.

As part of that recall, Toyota will modify or replace pedals in 4.26 million vehicles, as well as add safety software that it plans to begin using in all new vehicles starting next year.

Times research shows that at least 19 people have died in accidents involving Toyota vehicles that have accelerated out of control since the 2002 model year. That’s more than all other manufacturers combined, according to NHTSA, which has called the situation a “very dangerous problem.”

Toyota and Lexus dealers report that car buyers are showing reluctance to buy their vehicles because of the recall. But in a monthly sales call this week, Toyota executives said they were closely monitoring for any repercussions the current recall could have on sales but said that the effect so far had been minimal.

The automaker’s U.S. sales are down 24% through the first 11 months of the year, and its share of the market has remained flat. Several key competitors, including Honda Motor Co. and Ford Motor Co., have gained share.