Toyota’s Lexus ES issues: A chronology

Toyota documents compiled in connection with a court case show the automaker’s travails with the 2002-2006 model years of the Lexus ES 300, 330 and 350 sedans.

Oct. 1999: Four engineers identify “shift shock” and “weak feeling” in the transmission of the early prototype.

Aug. 2000: Eight engineers rate the ES prototype unacceptable in 20 of 41 performance categories.

Feb. 2001: A driveability test notes that “some customers may equate delayed [gear] engagement with engine acceleration hesitation.”


May 2001: A report by the Toyota Technical Center in the U.S. spots “severe” acceleration shock and indicates that the car is not ready for production. The report is sent to Executive Vice President Katsuaki Watanabe, who became president of Toyota in 2005.

July 2001: A report from Toyota’s National Product Quality Manager identifies 49 issues requiring “immediate action,” 20 of which are serious enough to warrant a stop in production.

Aug. 2001: Production of the 2002 ES begins in Japan.

Oct. 2001: Sales of the ES at U.S. Lexus dealerships begin.


Nov. 2001: Suitability testing by Toyota shows that the ES “is worse in most nearly all driveability categories than” the then-current Avalon.

Dec. 2001: A USA Today review critiques “jerky gears” in the new ES; Toyota’s U.S. officials ask Japanese headquarters to offer a software fix for the vehicles.

Feb. 2002: A Toyota engineer writes that he found “the car to be much less refined than I expect of a Lexus-quality vehicle.”

May 2002: Toyota notes complaints of surging and hesitation on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration website; surge is confirmed in an ES in Toyota’s U.S. fleet.

June 2002: Toyota launches an investigation of the problem, reviewing the vehicles of complaining customers. The review identifies 20 problems and calls for software fixes, but notifies the company that by itself, the software is not effective enough.

July 2002: Problems in 20 customer cars are confirmed; complaints are broken into three main categories: shift shock, shift delay and tip-in shock, which can also be described as surging. An internal e-mail notes that there are “many customers waiting for improvements on their shift quality” but that a new software remedy is to be used only for “extreme customer cases.”

Aug. 2002: The company is threatened with a class-action suit over ES issues; it is later settled; and the first software fix is administered to “critical customers” only.

Aug. 2003: Toyota releases a technical service information bulletin providing a software upgrade to “enhance” transmission shifting.


Nov. 2003: Company data show that at least 60 drivers have complained about performance after getting software upgrades.

Feb. 2004: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opens a sudden-acceleration investigation of the ES; company data show that at least 260 drivers have complained about performance after software upgrades.

May 2004: In an e-mail, a Lexus executive argues that the company should take a stand on the problem: Either “tell them that it is as good as it gets or that they will work on the problem until it is resolved.”

June 2004: A Lexus survey indicates that consumers rate the ES 330’s performance worse than the ES 300’s.

July 2004: Toyota’s U.S. sales unit tells Japan that problems are creating a “deteriorating public image of Lexus and Toyota brands” and asks that “we never have this problem again on future models.”

Oct. 2004: Toyota engineers determine that the seventh upgrade of software for the ES is “not acceptable” for either the ES 300 or ES 330. One writes that other issues also exist and that together they “add up to a vehicle that has inconsistent and disconnected drivability.”

April 2005: Toyota issues another technical service information bulletin providing software upgrades for the ES 300 and ES 330.

May 2005: David Greenberg files suit against Toyota alleging that ES sedans “surge” and “lurch.” A complaint is later amended to include “dangerous, unanticipated acceleration.”


June 2005: Toyota hires outside firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan to defend it against the Greenberg suit; an engagement letter notes that “you will learn that the transmission and computer system in the ES 300 and ES 330 involve a tortured history of customer complaints and numerous counter measure to address customer dissatisfaction between 2002 and the present time.”

July 2005: The Toyota database notes 211 buybacks of ES 300 and ES 330 sedans to date; Greenberg rejects a settlement offer. The plaintiff also rejected a prior buyback offer.

Aug. 2005: Bob Carter, then head of Lexus, recommends against notifying all Lexus ES owners of the latest software upgrade, suggesting that only the 3,000 who complained be informed.

Oct. 2005: Toyota hires Mattson and Sherrod, a jury consultancy, to prepare a defense strategy in the Greenberg case; company attorneys plead with executives not to “confuse this case with ‘sudden acceleration’ cases.”

Nov. 2005: Two Toyota engineers write that “hesitation” and “lurching” may be caused by the car having only three motor mounts rather than four and that software fixes will not remedy the issue.

Dec. 2005: Toyota attorneys visit the Toyota Technical Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., and discover a “small sack” of previously undiscovered documents that “can arguably be used to establish a negligence claim against” the company.

Jan. 2006: The Greenberg case is dismissed but is refiled two months later.

Feb. 2006: Quinn Emanuel submits a $1.6-million trial budget.

May 2006: The Greenberg case is again dismissed because it lacked federal jurisdiction.

Jan. 2010: Toyota announces a stop sale of eight models, triggering wider investigations into Toyota’s handling of safety-related issues.

Feb. 2010: Congress subpoenas documents held by former Toyota attorney Dimitrios Biller, including nearly 250 related to the Greenberg case.

April 2010: Regulators hit Toyota with a $16.4-million fine, the largest in automotive history, for delaying a safety recall.