Toyota today halted the sale of several popular models after being alerted to padding near seat heaters that doesn't meet flammability standards.
About 36,000 unsold cars in the U.S. equipped with seat heaters — including Camry, Corolla and other popular models — sitting anywhere from factory to dealer lots will be sidelined until a heating component is replaced. Only vehicles made in Toyota's U.S. plants and equipped with heated seats are covered by the "stop-sale" order, and the automaker has no timetable on how soon all repairs will be completed.
As for the much larger number of these models already sold, Toyota spokesman John Hanson says the company is not conducting a recall because it believes the problem is not a significant safety risk.
Those models being put off sale include 2012 to 2014 models of Camry, the nation's best-selling car. It also includes 2013 and 2014 Avalons, Siennas and Tacomas; and 2014 Corollas and Tundras.
"The timing of this issue, and its impact on Toyota's most popular models, couldn't be much worse," says Karl Brauer, analyst for Kelley Blue Book, in a statement. "Given that much of the U.S. is currently in the grips of a record cold snap there's sure to be high demand for models with seat heaters."
Avalon sedans come standard with heated seats, and more than a third of Sienna minivans came with them in 2013, according to a tally by Kelley Blue Book. After those two models, those ordering the option becomes rarer: only 6.2% of 2013 Camrys had them.
The problem was discovered when some of the cars were tested by a safety agency in South Korea. The agency did the tests because some vehicles are exported from the U.S. to South Korea. The Korean Automotive Test and Research Institute found that the fabric backing material used near seat heaters did not meet U.S vehicle flammability standards, according to Hanson. It informed Toyota, which, in turn, notified the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and ordered the cars not to be sold.
Hanson says Toyota knows of no seat fires or injuries involving the affected models from anywhere in the world. Thus, he says Toyota doesn't believe a recall is warranted. Toyota says it will petition NHTSA that the non-compliance be ruled inconsequential to safety, and thus requiring no recall.
NHTSA issued a statement saying that it is in communication with Toyota, is "monitoring the risk associated with this non-compliance" and will evaluate Toyota's petition once it arrives. "As always, safety is our top priority," it said.