DETROIT - Toyota has told North American dealers to stop selling six popular models with heated seats because the fabric doesn't comply with U.S. safety codes and potentially could catch fire.
The order affects 36,000 cars, trucks and minivans, about 13 percent of the inventory on dealer lots in the U.S., spokesman John Hanson said. Also affected are additional vehicles in Canada, Mexico, Korea, Israel and other countries, but no total number was available.
No fires or injuries have been reported, but Toyota can't legally sell cars that don't comply with U.S. safety codes, Hanson said.
Dealers can no longer sell certain Camry, Avalon, Sienna and Tacoma models with heated seats from the 2013 and 2014 model years, as well as Corollas and Tundras from 2014. The Camry is the top-selling car in the U.S. with more than 408,000 sales last year.
One soft material beneath the seat covers does not comply with U.S. safety standards, Hanson said.
Toyota doesn't know yet how long the repairs will take. Hanson said a replacement material is being manufactured and already is being installed at factories. Dealers will use the material to fix cars now on their lots. "We don't think it will take long to get the parts and make the changes," Hanson said. "I don't have any numbers on the timing."
As for vehicles already on the road, Toyota contends a recall isn't necessary since there have been no fires or incidents, Hanson said. It will petition the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to ask that the problem be declared "inconsequential" to vehicle safety. NHTSA said it is monitoring the risk from the problem and will take public comment on the petition. If it grants the petition, there won't be a recall.
Earl Stewart, owner of a dealership in North Palm Beach, Fla., said he can sell only a few of the 30 Avalon full-size cars on his lot because most have heated leather seats. "Hopefully we'll get some parts in where we can get them fixed by the end of February," he said. Other models such as the Camry aren't as affected because they are more often sold with unheated cloth seats, he said.
The timing couldn't be worse. With much of the nation in the midst of a record cold snap, people will take heat wherever they can get it. "There's sure to be high demand for models with seat heaters," said Karl Brauer, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book.
All the vehicles affected by the order were made at U.S. factories, Hanson said. Some were exported to South Korea, where safety regulators discovered the problem after disassembling seats and testing individual fabrics, he said. U.S. safety standards require fabrics to resist flames at a certain rate, but the one fabric didn't meet the standard, Hanson said.
Toyota is the global leader in sales, ahead of General Motors Corp. and Volkswagen AG. It has struggled to regain its once sterling reputation for quality after announcing massive recalls over several years, starting in 2009, for a variety of defects including braking, accelerators and floor mats.