Consumer Reports has given a "Don't Buy" warning -- its first in nine years -- to the new Lexus GX 460, saying the large SUV has handling problems that could cause it to roll over during sharp turns.
The warning is Toyota's latest rebuke from Consumer Reports, which in January pulled its "recommended" rating on eight vehicles recalled by the automaker due to faulty gas pedals. The magazine is closely read by many car buyers before choosing a new car or truck.
The warning label on the 2010 GX 460 will remain until Toyota addresses the handling issue with the seven-seat SUV. About 5,400 have been sold since the vehicle went on sale in late December, Consumer Reports said.
The magazine said the problem occurred during runs on its test track. During the test of what's known as "lift-off oversteer," the test driver approaches a turn unusually fast, then releases the accelerator pedal to simulate the response of an alarmed driver.
This causes the rear of the vehicle to slide outward.
In normal cases, the electronic stability control should quickly correct the loss of control and keep the SUV on its intended path.
But with the GX 460, the stability control took too long to adjust, which could cause a rollover accident if one of the sliding wheels were to strike the curb or another obstacle, said Gabriel Shenhar, Consumer Reports' senior auto test engineer who was one of four testers who experienced the problem.
The magazine said it is not aware of any reports of the GX 460 rolling over. It tested two separate vehicles, both of which experienced the problem, but neither rolled over.
Toyota said it is concerned about the findings, adding that its engineers will try to duplicate the magazine's tests to determine the next steps. The GX 460 still "meets or exceeds" government testing requirements, Toyota said.
"We take the Consumer Reports' test results seriously," the automaker said.
The warning is the latest blow to Toyota's tarnished safety reputation after the recall of millions of cars and trucks over gas pedals that are too slow to retract or that can become stuck under floor mats. The GX 460 is not covered by the pedal recalls.
The "Don't Buy" label is unlikely to hurt Toyota's broader sales since the GX 460 accounts for a fraction of its total, said Erich Merkle, president of the consulting company Autoconomy.com in Grand Rapids, Mich. However, it comes at an unfortunate time as the automaker tries to move beyond the recalls.
"I think it will have a bigger impact from a negative-PR perspective than from an actual sales perspective," Merkle said.
The GX 460, which starts at about $52,000, is built on the same platform as the Toyota 4 Runner. However, Consumer Reports said the problem did not occur during similar tests on the 4 Runner.
According to Toyota's Web site, both vehicles are about six feet tall but the GX 460 is about three inches taller.
Consumer Reports said the last vehicle to receive such a safety warning was the 2001 Mitsubishi Montero Limited, a large SUV. In that case, testers said the wheels lifted off the road during standard avoidance-maneuver tests, which also posed a rollover risk.
At the time, Mitsubishi disputed the magazine's findings and did not make any modifications to the vehicle, Mitsubishi spokesman Dan Irvin said. The designation appeared to have little effect on the Montero's sales, which increased overall during the second half of 2001.
The Montero remained on sale in the U.S. until 2007 and continues to be sold overseas as the Mitsubishi Pajero.
Toyota shares traded in the U.S. fell 61 cents to $78.94 in afternoon trading.