Should you buy a Toyota?

Last Updated: Jul 19, 2011

The main risk you’re likely to face with the purchase of a 2010 or 2011 Toyota or Lexus isn’t unintended acceleration.

It’s accelerated depreciation.

Trade-in values of Toyotas are falling, and some used-car dealers are reportedly refusing to accept Toyotas as trade-ins.

The notion that Toyota will fail to stem instances of unintended acceleration is improbable. Too much is at stake. The company has escalated its attempted solutions from replacing floor mats that could entangle the gas pedal, to retrofitting older models with a special throttle plate designed to prevent “sticking” throttles, to equipping new ones with an electronic override that automatically reduces engine power when the brake pedal and accelerator are applied simultaneously.

The ultimate remedy may in fact lie with some alteration or design change still to be identified by ongoing research. The cars’ onboard electronic throttle-control system has emerged as a prime suspect.

Less certain is the long-term effect the safety crisis will have on residual values of vehicles Toyota builds under its own name and those it builds for its premium Lexus brand. Thanks in great measure to their reputation for reliability, Toyotas and Lexuses have rewarded their owners with resale values among the highest in the industry.

Toyota admits it fumbled its response to reports of unintended acceleration. And a growing number of critics are leveling serious accusations that the company engaged in delays and diversions to mask the problem. In addition, Toyota has initiated voluntary recalls of some models after owners complained about brake performance and steering response. (A list of recalled Toyota and Lexus vehicles appears at the end of this article.)  

We road test and review more than one hundred new cars, pickups, minivans, and SUVs annually. Those from Toyota and Lexus tend to be marked by thoughtful design, ease of use, and refinement. Virtually every one is a benchmark competitors study when engineering rival models.  They’re not perfect, and we’ve criticized more than a few for lazy handling and numb steering. But we’ve not experienced vehicle behavior we could regard as a threat to safety.

Our best advice is to include new 2010 and 2011 Toyota and Lexus models on your shopping list, but don’t purchase one unless the dealer can verify the vehicle you’re considering is not included in any recall. If it is, require the dealer to show proof that the remedy required by the recall has been performed.

If you’re considering a used Toyota or Lexus and it’s among models included in the recalls, get verification that the appropriate work has been performed.   

More problematic is the question of residual value.

If you’re shopping a used car, falling prices may work to your advantage. The recall crisis has lowered demand for used Toyotas. Supplies of unsold older models are piling up. Trade-in values are dropping, and so are prices of used examples.

The highly influential Kelly Blue Book has decreased its values of recalled Toyotas by several hundred dollars. The research firm Edmunds says the value of the 2009 Camry midsize sedan, the best-selling car in America last year, dropped as much as 6 percent since January, when it was recalled for what Toyota said was a sticking accelerator pedal. Trade-in values for the 2009 Toyota Corolla, the country’s most-popular compact car last year, have slipped by a similar percentage, Edmunds says. Published reports say  some used-car dealers are refusing to accept Toyotas or taking them  only after 30-percent reductions from trade-in prices they were paying just months ago. 

That the Japanese automaker’s sterling reputation has been tarnished is obvious, but how deeply and for how long will have a bearing on the retained value of a new Toyota or Lexus. Owner loyalty among Toyota and Lexus buyers has been among the industry’s strongest, and many observers contend the high regard in which the public has held the brands will rebound once the unintended acceleration crisis abates, restoring weakened residual values in the process.

In simplest terms, if trade-in value plays heavily in your buying decision, the purchase of a new Toyota or Lexus is a gamble.  Two or three years from now, a used-car dealer or savvy used-car shopper probably will cite the unintended acceleration controversy as leverage to lower the price they’ll pay for your late-model Toyota or Lexus – regardless of whether it was included in the recall.

Resale pricing becomes less of a gamble the longer you plan to keep your car. Once a vehicle reaches seven to 10 years of age or nears or exceeds 100,000 miles, actual trade-in value is academic. That far into the future, the recalls are not apt to be relevant.

But they are important today. After admitted delays in responding, Toyota is scrambling to address claims that certain of its Toyota and Lexus models accelerate out of control. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says it’s received thousands of complaints about unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles and attributes 34 deaths to the problem.

Toyota is adamant about its long-term safety record. It has cited federal data for the period 2001 to February 2010 that shows that among nearly 40 automotive brands for sale in the U.S., only Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, and Smart lodged fewer safety-related consumer complaints.

Nonetheless, Toyota says its engineers have identified two mechanical causes of unintended acceleration. One involves floor mats that when loose or improperly fitted can entrap the accelerator pedal. The other concerns accelerator pedals that can, over time, grow “sticky” with wear. On Feb. 23, in testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Toyota’s top U.S. executive added that the company was also studying the possibility that the electronic throttle controls could be at fault.   

Toyota’s safety recall began in late 2009 and so far involves more than six million cars, SUVs, and pickups built under its own name as well as cars it builds for its premium Lexus brand.  Those recalls do not involve repair or replacement of complex and expensive electronic throttle controls – a particularly contentious point.

Several safety advocates claim the electronic systems are at the root of the problem. Virtually every new car now links the action of the gas pedal to the engine not by mechanical cable but via wires, sensors, and computers. These electronics “interpret” the driver’s intent, fold the information into a variety of parameters involving engine condition, grade of fuel, exhaust emissions, and other factors, and translate it into acceleration.

Toyota has steadfastly resisted suspicion that unintended acceleration was due to the design of its electronic throttle controls.  However, federal regulators as early as 2004 furnished the company with data showing Camrys with electronic throttle controls were the subject of an inordinate number of complaints related to vehicle speed.

Some automakers incorporate into their electronic throttle-control systems a brake-override that automatically reduces engine power when the brake pedal and accelerator pedal are applied simultaneously under certain driving conditions.

The first Toyota-brand vehicle to receive a brake-override system is the redesigned 2011 Sienna minivan. The system is also being phased it into production of the 2011 Camry. The 2011 Sienna and Camry went on sale in February. Toyota says the feature will be incorporated into future new production of most models it sells in the United States by the end of 2010.

Brake override is also being retrofitted to the following Toyota models: 2005-2010 Tacoma pickup, 2009-2010 Toyota Venza crossover, 2008-2010 Sequoia SUV, 2007-2010 Camry, and 2005-2010 Avalon. Lexus models being retrofitted with brake override are the 2007-2010 ES 350, 2006-2010 IS 350, and 2006-2010 IS 250.

The brake override system is not an integral part of the current recalls.

Meanwhile, Toyota and Lexus dealers are repairing 50,000 recalled vehicles per day. 

Here’s the list of Toyota vehicles recalled for problems involving gas pedals that are hard to depress, slow to return to the closed position or remain partially depressed. Toyota, Lexus, and Pontiac vehicles affected by the sticky pedal recall are:
2007-2008 Tundra
2008-2010 Sequoia
2005-2010 Avalon
2007-2010 Camry
2009-2010 Corolla
2009-2010 Matrix
2009-2010 RAV4
2010 Highlander
2009-2010 Pontiac Vibe

Here is the list of Toyota-made vehicles recalled for replacement of the driver-side floormat:
2007-2010 Camry
2005-2010 Avalon
2004-2009 Prius
2005-2010 Tacoma
2007-2010 Tundra
2007-2010 ES 350
2006-2010 IS 250 and IS350
2008-2010 Highlander
2009-2010 Corolla
2009-2010 Venza
2009-2010 Matrix
2009-2010 Pontiac Vibe

Toyota is also recalling model-year 2010 Prius Hybrids and Lexus HS 250h vehicles for braking safety issues involving momentary loss of braking power. Some 2010 Camrys prone to brake fluid leaks are also been recalled.

Finally, NHTSA has begun to study about 80 complaints from owners of model-year 2009 and 2010 Corollas who claim the cars wander at highway speeds.