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A Toyota sits on a lot in Toronto. (Ashley Hutcheson for The Globe and Mail)
A Toyota sits on a lot in Toronto. (Ashley Hutcheson for The Globe and Mail)

Driving It Home

Toyota stumbles on one crash test; still rated 'reliable' Add to ...

Google the phrase “Toyota slammed by Consumer Reports” and you’ll get more than a million results in a quarter of a second. Yes, CR made big news by dropping the Toyota Camry, RAV4 and Prius v from its long list of “recommended” vehicles. Big news.

Despite this embarrassing stumble, there is also good news about these models in CR’s latest, just-released reliability study. The Camry, the study shows, is No. 2 for reliability among mid-size cars, second only to the Subaru Legacy. The RAV is the third-most reliable small SUV and the Prius v is still among the most dependable hybrids or electric vehicles in the marketplace.

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The bad news for Toyota is that CR’s condemnation was expected. This has been months in the making. Back in August, Automotive News reported that Toyota Motor was “racing to make its vehicles stronger” after being whacked by the “poor” safety rating that ultimately forced CR to drop its “recommended” rating of the RAV, the Camry and the Prius v.

The problem: Toyota has run into trouble in frontal crash tests, in particular what’s called the “small overlap” test. This one is designed to simulate a left front-quarter collision with a pole or a tree. It’s a very tough test and intended to be, says the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Indeed, the U.S. government does not require success in this test for a vehicle to get a Five Star rating and the Canadian government doesn’t release crash test scores at all.

As far back as last December, the Camry and Prius v were ranked at the bottom of the field among mid-size sedans tested, reports Automotive News. Then this past July, the reinvented RAV4 also earned a “poor” rating in this crash test.

Toyota has plenty of vehicles rated as an IIHS Top Safety Pick – including the RAV4, Camry and the Prius v. This means they have done well in four traditional IIHS crash tests. But to get the best IIHS safety rating of Top Safety Pick+, a vehicle needs a good or acceptable rating in the small overlap test and it must also do well in four other crash tests. So far, the only Toyota to get the best possible rating is the Scion tC.

This really is a surprise. The reinvented 2014 Corolla compact, Toyota’s top selling passenger car in Canada and Toyota’s No. 2 seller in the U.S., just received a “marginal” rating in the small overlap test. So it won’t be a Top Safety Pick+. Until the Corolla earns that rating, it presumably won’t get be a CR recommendation, either. Not good at all.

Make no mistake, though, Toyota is aware it has a problem. Just days before CR released its reliability report, Automotive News reported that while Toyota is “forging ahead on advanced safety systems,” executives have also conceded that Toyota is “playing catch-up” with “old-school” safety features. In particular, some Toyota vehicle frames are not engineered to meet the highest standards in the latest and toughest crash tests.

“Now we are trying to recover,” Toyota’s No. 2 safety technology officer Seigo Kuzumaki told Automotive News about the new Corolla. “From a production point of view, it requires a drastic change. So it requires time.”

How much time? My guess is a year to 18 months. To pass the small overlap test, Toyota will need to reinforce the front ends of the RAV, the Corolla, the Camry and the Prius V, to name just four. That will be costly and it will add weight, which will also have an impact on fuel economy. In the end, Toyota’s reputation has been hurt. How that will impact sales and profitability is a question to be answered in time.

Of course, lost in this latest safety flap is the fact that Toyota continues to build vehicles with excellent dependability. Just ask Consumer Reports.

globedrive@globeandmail.com

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