Consumer Fraud

Faulty steering mechanism prompts Toyota Prius recall

A potential power steering flaw that can cause steering difficulty is behind the global recall of 106,000 Toyota Prius cars, including about 52,000 in the United States. The recall affects model-year 2001-03 Priuses only. Toyota announced the recall on Wednesday.

According to automaker, the electric power steering pinion shaft attachment nuts in the steering column can loosen and “over time, the customer will gradually notice significant increased steering effort when making a left turn.”

Toyota’s press release does not cite any specific cases or accidents, but a Toyota spokesman Brian Lyons told the New York Times that it has received one report of an accident blamed on the problem. Toyota started investigating the flaw nearly four years ago when field tests found that the steering wheel in the first-generation Prius for the Japanese market locked up. The issue was cited in an August 2007 technical report, according to documents on file with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Toyota said it received other, sporadic reports of the problem, but it wasn’t until late last month that engineers discovered the cause behind the loosened steering-shaft nuts and advised a recall. According to U.S. law, carmakers have 5 days to inform NHTSA of its plans for a recall after discovering the safety defect.

Toyota agreed to pay the regulatory agency record fines of $32.425 million for its failure to comply with that very law on two separate occasions. The maximum-allowable fines included $16.38 million for its failure to report floor mat entrapment and sudden unintended acceleration issues in a timely manner and $16 million over its handling of a recall involving loss of steering control in nearly one million vehicles.

NHTSA has also logged several dozen complaints from 2001-2002 Prius drivers about the power steering on those models. The agency has several dozen complaints from owners about problems with power steering on 2001-2 Priuses, many of which report “violent shaking,” “wobbling” “shuddering,” and “vibrating” of the steering wheel while turning left.

Under the current recall, Toyota dealers will replace the nuts that secure the pinion shaft at no charge to the vehicle owner. According to Toyota, the fix takes approximately 4 hours. Owners of the vehicles affected will be notified by first-class mail starting in early July.