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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Prius earns green thumbs-up again

 •  Toyota's U.S. chief apologizes for defects

By Jeff Plungis
Bloomberg News Service

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Toyota workers assemble a 2010 Prius in Japan. Consumer Reports again called the Prius the top pick for environmentally friendly vehicles, despite the recalls.

Associated Press library photo

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WASHINGTON Toyota Motor Corp.'s Prius retained its title as Consumer Reports magazine's top pick for environmentally friendly vehicles two weeks after the automaker recalled 437,000 hybrids to fix a brake software flaw.

The carmaker's $76,572 Lexus LS460L was named best overall vehicle among more than 280 autos tested. The Prius was ranked best "green" car for the seventh straight year.

The Consumer Reports rankings, used by U.S. car buyers, may help Toyota weather recalls now totaling more than 8 million vehicles worldwide and widening probes into its handling of the faults.

A federal grand jury has asked for documents related to unintended acceleration and braking in the Prius, and three congressional panels are planning hearings, starting with a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee yesterday.

Consumer Reports also named General Motors Co.'s Chevrolet Traverse as the best sport utility vehicle and GM's Silverado as the top pickup. Nissan Motor Co. also had two recommended models, the Altima sedan and Infiniti G37 sports car.

Other favored vehicles included the Mazda Motor Corp. Mazda5, Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd.'s Subaru Forester, Volkswagen AG's GTI and Hyundai Motor Co.'s Elantra SE.

Toyota's Highlander and RAV4 SUVs were dropped from the magazine's top-pick list because the company has suspended sales of the models as part of the recalls, said David Champion, deputy technical director at the magazine's automotive test center. The magazine will re-evaluate the decision when sales resume, he said.

In a separate ranking of best values, Consumer Reports again singled out the Prius and Honda Motor Co. Ltd.'s Fit small cars as the top two scoring models among more than 280 tested.

In response to the Toyota recalls, Consumers Union, the Yonkers, N.Y.-based publisher of Consumer Reports, said yesterday that U.S. regulators should require simpler controls that allow drivers to turn off car engines in an emergency.

Technical experts at Consumer Reports found that in panic situations vehicle controls such as ignition shut-offs may not operate the way drivers expect, Champion said.

The push-button ignition found on Toyota models such as the Prius was particularly difficult, he said. Drivers have to hold down the button for three seconds to turn the ignition off, he said. The vehicles should be redesigned so that pushing it multiple times turns the car off, he said.

"Even most of us on the test track didn't realize you had to hold the button," Champion said.

Evaluation of the recalled cars showed some issues that should have standardized fixes. Automakers should be required to design accelerator pedals to clear floor mats with expected normal usage, he said.

Consumer Reports hasn't seen any unintended acceleration in its test cars, he said.

In a set of policy recommendations, Consumer Reports said the government should lift the current $16.4 million cap on civil penalties for failure to recall vehicles as required by law. The relatively low amounts may be considered a "cost of doing business," and not a deterrent, the magazine said.