Why Toyota should recall the Camry Hybrid

Brake problems on 2007 to 2011 hybrids warrant a stronger response

Published: July 28, 2014 02:00 PM

Following a federal investigation begun earlier this year, Toyota has initiated two free power-brake repair programs for almost 178,000 Toyota Camry Hybrids from the model years 2007 to 2011. The two separate repair campaigns address different potential component failures. The company will begin notifying owners this month, but thus far hasn’t announced any plans for a recall.

Consumer Reports believes that Toyota should recall these cars. What’s at issue here is a series of acknowledged defects in a crucial safety system.

One problem is caused by a clogged brake-fluid reservoir filter. A notice from Toyota to its dealers and affected owners mentions that one or more brake-system dashboard warning lights may be lit and that “front brake assist could be temporarily lost.” In at least some cases, that means that stopping the car could suddenly take significant brake pedal effort, especially as the front brakes provide most of the stopping force.

Instead of a recall, Toyota has started a “service campaign” to install a redesigned brake-fluid reservoir in affected vehicles, anytime between now and June 30, 2017. Even owners who haven’t experienced the problem will be able to get the new part installed free. Further, if they’ve already paid for it on their own, they can apply for reimbursement.

The second problem involves a dicey ABS brake actuator. If that should fail, warning lights will come on and it could take a hard push on the pedal to stop the car. Meanwhile, the ABS function won’t activate. A related problem comes from a possibly faulty “brake pedal stroke sensor.” The remedies include a new actuator and replacement or reprogramming of the stroke sensor computer chip.

Rather than a “service campaign,” the actuator problem is covered by a “warranty extension,” which stretches out the warranty period beyond the standard three years or 36 months to, ultimately, 10 years or 150,000 miles, whichever comes first. That’s a good thing, because an ABS actuator for Camry Hybrids of this vintage costs at least $1,000 at retail and dealers may charge a total of more than $3,000 to replace it.

The warranty extension is only offered to owners who experience the problem. But people who have already paid out of pocket for a new actuator or brake-pedal stroke sensor may be eligible for reimbursement.

Toyota’s action was prompted, at least in part, by many consumer complaints lodged with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Over the last several years, owners have complained of loss of braking performance, increased pedal effort, and other difficulties. The NHTSA opened an official inquiry in January, asking Toyota for its record of complaints and other data. The NHTSA cited 59 complaints of defective brakes.

We've found that today the number of power-brake complaints for those two model years has risen to 269, with 14 crashes and five injuries.

While NHTSA’s information request concerned only 2007 and 2008 Camry Hybrids, Toyota’s eventual response—the service campaign and the warranty extension—broadened the scope to include all years from 2007 through 2011, and it will apply to an estimated 177,500 vehicles.

We think Toyota’s proper action would be a recall. Greatly diminished brake function is a serious safety concern. A recall is more comprehensive and widely published than a mere service campaign, and owners don’t have to wait for a problem to happen before qualifying for the repair. Besides that, unlike extended warranties, recalls don’t expire and are performed proactively.

If you have a safety complaint—a condition you believe could cause death or injury—contact the NHTSA at www.safercar.org or by phone at 888-327-4236. You can bring questions and complaints about Toyota vehicles directly to the company by calling 888-270-9371.    

Gordon Hard and Seung Min Yu

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