Toyotas breathtaking implosion has been a big boon to the long-struggling American car industry, which less than a year ago saw GM and Chrysler declare bankruptcy at the height of the economic downturn.
GM has been especially aggressive, offering Toyota owners $1,000 toward a new car and zero percent financing for 60 months. The automaker must be doing something right: it saw sales climb 12% in February, the fifth consecutive month that the company posted a gain.
But as GM tries to move forward, it finds itself haunted by the once-promising Pontiac Vibe, the now-defunct crossover that shared its platform with the Toyota Matrix. The Vibe has been added to the Toyota recall, and now GM has been sucked into a Canadian class action lawsuit filed on behalf of Toyota owners. Its the third Toyota-related suit filed by New Brunswick attorney Tony Merchant, an aggressive lawyer who calls himself one of Canadas most active litigators.
All of Merchants suits allege that Toyotas acceleration problem is caused by an electronic -- rather than a mechanical -- defect. Specifically, Merchant alleges that the Toyotas are equipped with an electronic throttle control system that may suddenly accelerate without driver input and against the intentions of the driver.
As a result, Merchant says that the companys fix -- a steel reinforcement bar designed to reduce the excess friction that Toyota says is causing the problem -- does not correct the design flaw and diminishes the value" of the affected vehicles.
Merchant says that the Vibe shares an electronic system with the Matrix, and therefore is susceptible to the same danger of unintended acceleration.
Although branded differently, the Pontiac Vibe and Toyota Matrix are veritable twins, according to a statement Merchant filed last week. The Pontiac Vibe is manufactured at the Toyota plant in Fremont, California.
Data supports Merchants theory
Recent reports tend to support Merchants theory that the root cause is electronic. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has been contacting Toyota owners who had the steel bar installed on their vehicles. The results are disturbing: at least 10 consumers say the remedy hasnt stopped the problem.
Toyota adamantly denies an electronic defect, but that hasnt stopped NHTSA from launching its own investigation. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who declared that safety is our top priority, has vowed to see the probe through to the end.
GM halted sales of the Vibe in late January, around the same time that Toyota suspended the sale of potentially affected vehicles. As part of its bankruptcy restructuring, GM agreed to retire the Pontiac brand, with the last Pontiac rolling off the line last August.
Pontiac sold just under 100,000 second-generation Vibes in the United States before pulling the plug. Whatever the outcome of the suit, Merchant is insistent that Toyotas solution doesnt lessen the danger faced by Toyota owners.
Low-tech solutions to high-tech problems simply dont work, says Merchant. Toyotas problems are extremely difficult to solve.