NHTSA Engineering Analysis Underway in Toyota Stall Investigation

The preliminary investigation of Toyota engine problems that began in November of last year has been upgraded to an engineering analysis by National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The NHTSA probe may involve up to 1.2 million Toyota Corollas and Matrix hatchback models for sudden engine stalling problems.

Owners of Corollas and Matrix hatchbacks (model years 2005-2007) have filed 1,101 complaints involving their vehicles, says the NHTSA Web site. The agency describes the problem on the site, stating that “the engine can stall at any speed without warning and not restart.”

After the NHTSA received some additional information from Toyota following the opening of the preliminary evaluation, it decided to move into the engineering analysis phase, which can potentially lead to a recall. Toyota has already recalled 11.2 million vehicles globally, mostly for sudden acceleration problems.

Brian Lyons, Toyota spokesman, did not say whether or not Toyota has decided to recall the vehicles in question. He said, “We are cooperating with the investigation. Only North American vehicles are involved.”

According to a letter written on March 2 by Toyota employee and former NHTSA investigator Chris Santucci, “Toyota does not believe that the alleged defect creates an unreasonable risk to motor vehicle safety.” Lyons would not say if the automaker still believes that is an accurate statement.

Toyota reports that it has already handled over four thousand warranty claims, approving replacement of the computer module that controls the engine.

One complaint from last January was filed by the driver of a 2007 Corolla, who tried three times to start the engine of the car when she was ready to drive home after work. It started the third time, and the next day she brought the car to the dealership, where the electronic control module was replaced. The problem was fixed.

The automaker says that the first reports of the problem with the module came in November 2005, and an investigation began in March 2006. The electronic control module was improved in June 2007, and Toyota issued four technical bulletins to dealerships regarding the issue.

This past March, Toyota offered some insight into what it believes the problem could be. The company said cracking in the soldered joints of the module circuit boards or cracks in the glass coating of the varistor, which is a resistor that protects circuits from excessive voltage by conducting increased current, could be to blame.

Toyota’s March report to the NHTSA stated, “Toyota has discovered that the supplier of the varistor changed the material and the production process, which made such cracks more likely.”

The New York Times and Consumer Reports have both reported that similar complaints about the Pontiac Vibe have been filed with the NHTSA. The Pontiac Vibe is almost the mechanical double of the Matrix.

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