Toyota dealer awaits recall directions

The car company says runaway acceleration linked to at least 19 deaths and caused by cold weather is less likely to strike UAE motorists who do not use the heater.

A Toyota Avalon is one of two Toyota models that is subject to the UAE recall.
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Moein Mohamed knows what it's like to have a sudden problem with his accelerator. "One day I had trouble with the pedal and it would not stop," said Mr Mohammed, 25, the chairman of Alamtar General Transports, who drives an Avalon, one of the cars recalled this week in the UAE by Toyota. "But I took it to a mechanic and he said there was no problem, so I'm not worried about it."

Though Mr Mohamed is not sure if he will have his car repaired as part of the global recall of more than eight million cars, many UAE owners should soon get that option. Toyota's Sequoia models were recalled along with the Avalon, and a UAE distributor says it will begin free repairs on the vehicles once it is receives instructions from the company. Simon Frith, the managing director of Al Futtaim Motors, the official distributor of Toyotas here, said his company was working with the automaker to determine the best fix for the cars. In the US, the repair has involved inserting a steel bar into the accelerator mechanism.

He said he did not know when repairs would begin. "As soon as we have that information, we're going to go to market with it," he said. After months of reports involving runaway acceleration caused by sticky pedals, Toyota previously announced that 2.3 million cars would be recalled in the United States. On Monday, that recall was extended to parts of China, Europe and the Middle East. The recall is expected to affect less than one per cent of Toyotas in the Emirates, where the company enjoys a good reputation and high sales.

"It's a very small number. The Avalon and Sequoia are both very low-volume models," Mr Frith said. The two models affected are the only Toyotas imported from the US, he said. The other six models sold in the UAE, including the popular Camry, are imported from other countries. The global recall list includes the Camry, Corolla, Rav4, Matrix, Highlander and Tundra models. "Even in the US, not all Camrys are subject to recall," said Paul Nolasco, a spokesman for the Toyota Motor Company. "Camrys are built in many places in the world and not all places use this accelerator-pedal assembly."

Mr Frith said the Avalon and Sequoia were not sold under other names in the UAE. It is possible that other models subject to the recall have reached the UAE through the grey market, he said, but there is no way of knowing how many. "In most markets it is possible to get cars other than through the official distributors," he said. "What we know is that cars distributed through us are being urgently investigated, which is in the best interests of our customers."

Toyota's recall began in November when the company received reports about the accelerator sticking. It first attributed the problem to the pedals becoming trapped under floor mats and advised the owners of more than four million cars to remove the mats. But reports of runaway acceleration continued. In the US, the problem has been linked to 19 deaths in the past decade. Toyota officials said the incidents of uncontrolled acceleration tended to occur in cold weather, when the heater was on, and therefore are unlikely to affect vehicles in the GCC.

Mr Nolasco said the problem with the pedal was not a result of cost cutting or poor quality control, despite claims in the North American media. "We believe the fault was caused by moisture building up inside the accelerator pedal assembly. If you think of a window fogging up, one second [the moisture] is there and the next second it's not there any more," he said. "When we received complaints of a partly sticky pedal, by the time we got to the car to open it up and take a look at it, the environment had changed. - There was no way for us to ever get the idea that something might go wrong."

The incidents, he added, have been few and far between. Toyotas account for about one-third of the local car market. An employee with Toyota Motor Company said that last year 433,000 of the vehicles were sold across the six GCC states. With so many cars affected in the US, China and Europe, forcing six plants to cease production of the brand's most popular models, the recall is one of the largest in history.

Stephanie Vigier, a senior analyst specialising in the auto industry in the Middle East and Africa with the consultancy firm IHS Global Insight, said Toyota's reputation had been damaged. However, the speed at which the company had managed the crisis may help restore customer confidence, she said. "Internationally, it's difficult because Toyota in the region has always been known as reliable and high quality. This has hurt their image for sure," she said. "However, they have put in place the recall rapidly and made changes rapidly, within a week."

If the recall and repairs "succeed, that image will be less damaged than if they fail". * With additional reporting by Alison McMeans