Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Consumer Reports sees Toyota reliability slip

Two of top automaker’s models earn below-average rankings in a study

DETROIT - Consumer Reports said on Tuesday that it was reversing a practice of recommending all new Toyota cars and trucks after two models earned below-average rankings in a closely watched reliability study.

The step marked the latest setback for Toyota Motor Corp. after a period of fast growth in the United States that has made it the No. 2 player in the world’s largest auto market.

In recent years, Japanese auto brands, led by Toyota, have dominated Consumer Reports’ influential study of the most reliable new vehicles.

Besides its influence with car shoppers, the annual study is used by major automakers as a proxy for their performance in improving and maintaining vehicle quality.

Although Toyota ranked third in reliability behind only Honda Motor Co and Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd’s Subaru, Consumer Reports also found two Toyota models had “below average” predicted reliability.

Those two models were the V-6 version of Toyota’s flagship Camry sedan and the four-wheel-drive, V-8 version of its new Tundra pickup truck.

“Consumer Reports will no longer recommend any new or redesigned Toyota-built models without reliability data on a specific design,” the publication said in a statement. ”Previously, new and redesigned models were recommended because of the automaker’s excellent track record.”

The same study found gains for Ford Motor Co., which landed three models on the magazine’s “most reliable” list.

Consumer Reports ranked the Ford Fusion, Mercury Milan and the automaker’s market-leading F-150 pickup truck with a V-6 engine as among the most-reliable new vehicles on the market.

“Ford continues to improve,” David Champion, director of auto testing for Consumer Reports, said in a statement. “We believe Toyota is aware of its issues and trying to fix problems quickly.”

brief reporters in Detroit on the results of the annual survey on Tuesday.

Representatives for Toyota and Ford were not immediately available for comment.

In the first nine months of this year, Toyota had a 16.2 percent share of the U.S. market for new cars and light trucks, behind only General Motors Corp at 23.8 percent.

But the Japanese automaker’s fast growth since 2000, when it had less than 10 percent of the U.S. market, has left it facing new pressure and scrutiny.

Two high-ranking executives have defected from Toyota’s U.S. subsidiary in recent months to join U.S. automakers. The most recent of those was Jim Farley, who left Toyota’s luxury Lexus division, to take over as top marketing executive at Ford.

In September, Toyota’s North American chief, Jim Press, left the automaker after a 37-year career to become vice chairman at newly private Chrysler LLC.

Toyota, which has won credit with consumers for its reputation for quality and fuel-efficiency, has also come under fire from environmental groups.

Although Toyota dominates the market for fuel-efficient hybrids with its Prius, it has joined Detroit-based automakers in lobbying against stringent increases in fleetwide fuel economy.

Consumer Reports is published by the nonprofit Consumers Union. The magazine accepts no paid advertising.

The publication’s “predicted reliability” study for new model vehicles is based on an average of consumer ratings of the same model in the recent years.

The magazine surveys readers and visitors to its Web site about their experience with the cars and trucks they own.

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