1.3 million Fords, Toyotas, Hondas under investigation

Image: Toyota Prius
Toyota's Gen-3 Prius is under investigation - again - for steering-related problems.The Detroit Bureau

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By Paul A. Eisenstein

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has launched a series of safety investigations targeting nearly 1.3 million Ford Motor Co., Toyota Motor Co. and Honda Motor Co. vehicles.

Federal regulators caution that they have not decided whether recalls are necessary but automotive observers note that, having come under fire for getting too cozy with the industry in recent years, NHTSA is getting more aggressive when it comes to ordering manufacturers to resolve safety-related problems.

Toyota’s popular Prius – the nation’s best-selling gas-electric vehicle – is the target of one of the new investigations. A total of 561,000 of the high-mileage hybrids are involved, NHTSA probing reports that the vehicles’ steering shafts were improperly assembled.

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The investigation focuses on Prius hybrids built between 2004 and 2009. Many of them were already the target of a previous Toyota recall involving steering shaft defects. That previous recall, announced last November covered 669,000 Prius hybrids also sold during the 2004 to 2009 model-years. According to the government, parts connected to the steering assembly could deform if a driver makes frequent, aggressive turns at low speeds.

The Prius was involved in an earlier steering-related recall that could cause loss of vehicle control. That service action covered 170,000 of the hybrids produced between 2004 and 2006.

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If NHTSA orders a recall of the Prius it would prove a double black eye for the maker. The hybrid is the brand’s halo car, essential to its claims of being the “greenest” manufacturer in the industry. But it would also mark another major recall for a brand that has traditional been viewed as a quality benchmark.

In 2012, Toyota had the most vehicles recalled of any brand in the U.S. market, the third time it achieved that dubious distinction in four years. And it has already had 1 million vehicles recalled since the beginning of 2013.

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NHTSA has separately launched an investigation of 724,000 Ford Escape, Fusion and Mercury Mariner and Milan models, triggered by 123 reports that the vehicles have experienced unexpected losses of power or completed stalled.

The problem could be the result of several issues including contaminated printed circuit boards and faulty throttle body assemblies. Vehicles produced between 2009 and 2011 are involved in the investigation.

The size of the investigation could also prove embarrassing to Ford which has been struggling to maintain a reputation for quality after seeing its scores drop in recent years in such key owner surveys as the 2012 J.D. Power Initial Quality Survey.

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The investigation was triggered by a formal complaint filed by the North Carolina Consumers Council. That group has been actively involved in automotive safety issues in recent years, and has triggered several recalls and investigations.

The smallest of the three new NHTSA investigations targets 87,000 Honda Pilots produced for the 2005 model-year. The government agency has received 205 reports of unexpectedly severe braking that could be caused by a faulty sensor in the crossover-utility vehicle’s Vehicle Stability Assist system.