Toyota stops sales to fix seat-heater problem

Los Angeles TimesJanuary 30, 2014 

BIZ AUTO-MIDSIZESEDAN 2 FT

Some models of the 2013 Toyota Camry are being affected by the stop-sales order. (Ron T. Ennis/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT)

RON T. ENNIS — MCT

Toyota Motor Corp. took the unusual step of halting sales of nearly its entire line up of cars and trucks that come with seat heaters because a portion of the seats in the vehicles — including the top-selling Camry sedan — were not manufactured with materials that met flame-retardant standards.

The temporary sales stop includes all new Avalon, Avalon Hybrid, Camry, Camry Hybrid, Corolla, Sienna, Tacoma and Tundra vehicles equipped with seat heaters, the Japanese automaker said.

Toyota's plant in Georgetown builds standard and hybrid versions of the Camry and Avalon.

The order affects 36,000 cars, trucks and minivans, about 13 percent of the inventory on dealer lots in the United States, spokesman John Hanson said. Also affected are additional vehicles in Canada, Mexico, Korea, Israel and other countries, but no total number was available.

Toyota said that a small portion of the seat assembly failed to meet a provision of U.S. motor vehicle safety standards requiring materials to retard flame at specified rate.

"Toyota is preparing a modification for this condition, which will be implemented on all covered vehicles in dealer inventory. There have been no reports globally of any related incidents in the field with units in operation," the automaker said in a statement.

Though Toyota is halting sales of the cars to make a fix that will bring them into compliance, at this time, it doesn't plan to recall cars already sold, Hanson said.

Toyota can't sell the cars in the sales pipeline until they are retrofitted.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will review the problem and then decide whether Toyota should issue a recall. "We have filed the report, it is up to them to decide where they want to take it," Hanson said.

Requests for comment from Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky in Georgetown were referred to Hanson.

Toyota said it learned of the problem from South Korean safety regulators who had tested a seat on a U.S.-built Camry hybrid. All of the affected vehicles are built in the United States.

The automaker sold more than 408,000 Camrys last year, making it the best-selling passenger car in the United States With sales of more than 300,000, the Corolla also was a popular model.

"This is an issue that if not addressed properly could be hazardous," said Dave Sullivan, manager of product analysis for consulting firm AutoPacific Inc. "This is an electrical current that is going through your seat."

Seat heaters typically come on cars sold with fancier interiors and in cold climates.

"This is definitely going to have an impact on sales," Sullivan said.

He praised Toyota for being "proactive rather than reactive," but he said the automaker should give consumers more information about the problem and look at making the same fix in any vehicles already sold that don't meet the safety standard.

"This is a big deal to have a stop-sale like this," Sullivan said. "But it is also a big deal to repair all these vehicles. You have to make a kit and ship it to all the dealers and then have all the cars fixed. It will be expensive."

This is the second time that Toyota has halted sales of a large segment of its lineup for a safety issue.

Four years ago, the company briefly stopped sales of eight models — including the Camry and Corolla — saying the gas pedals could get stuck and cause runaway acceleration. The automaker also shut down production of the vehicles for a week while it examined how to fix the problem, which it attributed to wear on the pedal system.

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