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After second recall, Toyota Prius electrical system is still overheating

Ralph Vartabedian, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

Jordan Felo had just finished hiking in the local mountains outside Portland, Ore., several weeks ago and was headed home in his 2010 Toyota Prius when it suddenly lost power and slowed to a crawl.

Felo had taken the Prius to a Toyota dealer a few weeks earlier for a 2018 safety recall. New software was installed to fix an overheating problem in the electrical power system. Yet when Felo hit the accelerator pedal, a key electronic component called an inverter overheated and fried itself.

"I was lucky nobody was behind me because I would have been rear-ended," recalled Felo, a salesman at an REI retail store. The car was towed to the dealer, which gave Felo the bad news: It would cost $3,000 to replace the shoe-box sized unit.

Felo's experience and others like it are raising questions about the adequacy of Toyota's attempts over the last five years to stop overheating in the Prius electrical system, and why the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration hasn't taken stronger regulatory action.

Originally, Toyota issued a safety recall in 2014 to address the inverter defect in model years 2010 to 2014, an attempt to fix the problem on about 800,000 cars in the U.S. by modifying software that controls the hybrid electrical system.

By 2017, it was clear the software modification was not working.

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One of Toyota's largest dealers in Southern California, Roger Hogan, told the manufacturer in 2017 that he was seeing inverter failures on vehicles that had received the software modification. At the time, he was refusing to resell about 100 used Priuses that he had taken on trade-in, asserting he did not believe they were safe. Hogan filed a defect petition with the NHTSA in December 2017, asking for a safety investigation, and filed a lawsuit against Toyota that alleged the recall was a sham. A trial in Orange County Superior Court is set for next month.

Those events led to a second recall in October 2018. But it turns out that action wasn't aimed at fixing the inverters -- which are still getting fried, according to Prius owners whom The Times contacted and who brought vehicles to Hogan's garages.

Theo Bare of Elmhurst, Ill., for example, said he had the 2018 software update performed on his 2010 Prius in February and then three weeks later saw the hybrid warning light come on.

Hogan contends that the only genuine remedy to the overheating problem would require installing newly designed inverters -- a step that could cost more than $2,000 per vehicle.

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