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Toyota tells N.A. dealers to stop selling 8 models over fire risk

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Crain News Service staff and wire reports

DETROIT (Jan. 31, 2014) — Toyota Motor Corp. told North American dealers Jan. 30 to stop selling several models equipped with seat heaters made since August 2012.

The car maker took that action after being alerted by South Korean safety officials that material in the part did not meet fire retardation standards also used in the U.S.

The auto maker said the affected vehicles are certain 2013 and 2014 Camry sedan, Camry hybrid, Avalon sedan, Avalon hybrid, Corolla subcompact, Sienna minivan and Tundra and Tacoma pickup trucks equipped with seat heaters that were sold since August 2012, when the fabric supplier was changed, a Toyota spokesman said.

The models are among the company's most popular cars and light trucks sold in the U.S., but only about 8 percent of 2013-2014 Toyota vehicles in the U.S. have heated seats, according to Kelly Blue Book (KBB) figures. All Toyota Avalons in the U.S. have heated seats, KBB said.

The number of vehicles in U.S. dealer stocks subject to the stop sale order is approximately 36,000, according to a document Toyota distributed to dealers and obtained by Automotive News.

Some 13,850 Avalon sedan models from 2013 and 2014, and 10,100 Sienna minivans from 2013 and 2014, in dealer inventory are subject to the stop sale order, the document shows.

Toyota said some vehicles in transit to dealerships may also be covered by the order.

The light vehicle are built in the U.S. and some are exported to Korea.

Recall possibilities

Toyota said it has alerted U.S. safety officials about the seating problem, which could result in a recall depending on what the safety agency decides.

Toyota spokesman John Hanson said the company informed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) of the issue and would file an official report later today outlining the non-compliance with the standard. He added that Toyota did not feel a recall was necessary.

"We don't believe that it is a defect issue or a safety-related issue because there has been no occurrence of any problems out in the real world," Mr. Hanson said.

There have been no reports of accidents, fires or injuries related to the issue in the affected vehicles in the U.S., Canada or Mexico, he said.

'Inconsequential noncompliance'

Auto makers routinely ask NHTSA to excuse them for a minor deviation from U.S. standards that has little or no effect on safety—what the agency calls "inconsequential noncompliance."

Just last week, General Motors Co. filed a petition asking NHTSA to excuse a manufacturing glitch that allows the rear head restraints in the 2013 Chevrolet Cruze, Chevrolet Volt, and Buick Verano to move up and down slightly more easily than federal standards require.

NHTSA often grants these petitions. Last spring the agency excused Ford Motor Co. for selling cars with a government-mandated window glazing symbol on the top of the windshield rather than on the bottom. Had the petition been denied, Ford might have been obligated to replace the windshield in 15,663 units of the 2010 Ford Taurus and 3,565 units of the 2010 Lincoln MKT.

No timeline

NHTSA will make the final determination on whether a recall is needed, and Hanson said he did not know the timeline for that decision. Toyota does not know the overall size of the light vehicle population affected by the issue, he said.

NHTSA said late Jan. 30 that it will monitor the risk associated with Toyota's petition.

"Safety is our top priority and NHTSA will take appropriate action as warranted," the agency said in a statement.

Toyota dealers have been told to stop selling any of the affected vehicles until the part can be replaced, Mr. Hanson said. The auto maker will handle requests by individual owners to replace the part at no cost on a case-by-case basis.

Toyota discovered the issue when it was notified that the seat heater did not pass a test conducted by the Korean Automotive Test and Research Institute, which uses the same standard as NHTSA, Mr. Hanson said.

The Korean agency found that the material in the seat heater does not meet standards that require it to retard a flame across the material surface at a specified rate, he said. KATRI notified Toyota of the failed compliance.

Fix identified

Mr. Hanson said Toyota has identified a fix.

"We know what the non-compliant component is and we're in the process now of getting the new seat heater assemblies with the compliant component," he said.

Toyota will fix non-compliant vehicles in production marshaling yards, in port and other stages of the pipeline before they reach dealers, Hanson said.

He declined to name the supplier of the non-compliant component, but said the firm in question is "likely" a tier-two or tier-three supplier.

Reuters and reporters Gabe Nelson, David Phillips, Nick Bunkley and Ryan Beene contributed to this report, which appeared on the website of Automotive News, a Detroit-based sister publication of Tire Business.

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