Isuzu, Magazine at Odds Over Allegations of Rollover Danger
DETROIT (AP) _ Three weeks after Consumer Reports alleged late-model Isuzu Troopers and their cousin, the Acura SLX, are dangerously unstable in sharp turns, sales have dipped and neither side has given an inch.
The magazine and the manufacturer have communicated mostly by way of peevish letters. Engineers have yet to review each side’s tests of the sport utility vehicles or even agree how to exchange test data. And lawyers are stirring.
Isuzu Motors, which makes the Trooper and the SLX in Japan for Honda Motor Co., went on the offensive today, revealing favorable results of an independent engineering analysis it commissioned.
``This testing confirmed what Isuzu already knew: The Trooper is an outstanding sport utility vehicle, which exhibits a generous margin of safety for its driver and occupant,″ Norihiko Oda, vice president of product engineering for American Isuzu Motors, told a Washington news conference.
In its October issue, the magazine will give the 1995 and 1996 Isuzu Trooper models and the 1996 Acura SLX its extremely rare ``not acceptable″ rating. The magazine says the vehicles failed an obstacle-avoidance test that virtually every other tested vehicle has passed with ease over the years.
In announcing the test results Aug. 20, Consumers Union, the magazine’s publisher, urged Isuzu and Acura to stop selling the vehicles until the problem could be eliminated. Isuzu declined the advice and said it planned no recalls.
In Consumer Reports video footage shown on news broadcasts last month, the Trooper and SLX tilted up on two wheels and nearly rolled over at 33 mph when drivers made sharp lane changes to the left, followed by quick right turns back into the original lane.
Oda said the test was flawed and unrealistic. Isuzu today showed reporters a frame-by-frame analysis of the video that it asserted showed the driver grossly oversteering the Trooper, compared with other vehicles tested.
``It is not a reliable test, because it is too easy for the driver to knowingly or unknowingly influence the outcome,″ Oda said.
The last time the respected consumer magazine branded a vehicle unacceptable was 1988, when it found the fledgling Suzuki Samurai prone to tilt dangerously on some turns. Sales plummeted and Suzuki eventually withdrew the Samurai from the U.S. market. It is still in court seeking damages from Consumers Union.
Trooper sales were down 35 percent last month, but it’s hard to know how much impact to accord the magazine report: August is often a sluggish sales period, and the announcement came late in the month.
What might have caused the Trooper and SLX to behave as they did remains unclear.
Sport utility vehicles, with their tall, boxy bodies, have higher centers of gravity than cars, which can make them more difficult to handle. And the Trooper is one of the heaviest and tallest in its category. (The SLX, in its first model year, is a Trooper with an Acura nameplate.)
But most speculation on why the Trooper failed the magazine’s tests has focused not on weight or height but on suspension changes made in the 1995 model. Consumer Reports had tested the 1992 Trooper, the first model of the current design, and it performed well.
According to Isuzu’s 1995 press handbook, the suspension was altered to give the Trooper a ``smoother ride, positive cornering, less squat under acceleration and decreased dive (under) ... hard braking.″
R. David Pittle, technical director of Consumer Reports, said making the suspension ``softer″ could cause the vehicle to lean more to one side in a hard turn, which might accentuate a tendency to roll over.
``I don’t know that it’s the suspension that’s the cause, but for me it’s an obvious place to at least start looking,″ he said. ``If it’s the suspension, they probably can do something to make it stiffer and more apt to slide rather than to sort of trip over itself.″
Initially, Isuzu officials defended the safety record of the Trooper, which has been sold in the United States since 1984, and said they would review Consumer Reports’ tests. Since then, Isuzu and the magazine have communicated by letters, copies of which were obtained by The Associated Press:
_On Aug. 21, Yoshito Mochizuki, president of American Isuzu Motors, requested virtually all test data for the Trooper, the SLX and unspecified other vehicles Consumer Reports has tested, including videotapes and photographs, all printouts and stored data, descriptions of the test course and qualifications of the test drivers.
_Responding the next day, Pittle sent some limited information and re-extended an offer for Isuzu engineers to visit the magazine’s Connecticut test center to review additional data in a more practical face-to-face meeting,
_Mochizuki took a more accusatory tone Aug. 30. He criticized Consumers Union for announcing ``your damaging report″ without first notifying Isuzu and claimed material was being withheld. ``I do not understand how Isuzu and Consumers Union can have a dialogue when you will not provide even the most basic information,″ Mochizuki wrote.
_On Sept. 5, Pittle offered again to meet with Mochizuki and Isuzu engineers, at any mutually agreeable location.
_On Tuesday, Mochizuki countered by inviting Consumers Union to meet this Friday in Washington, with attorneys.
``Now to find out there’s a press conference the day before, which was not mentioned in the letter,″ Pittle said. ``Reading between the lines, it doesn’t sound like they’re really interested in meeting with us.″
Isuzu spokesman Dan McCue disagreed.
``There has to be some sort of understanding as to exactly what is being asked for and what will be received,″ he said. ``That can’t happen overnight.″
In August, Isuzu sold 1,250 Troopers, compared with 1,920 sold in August 1995. Acura sold 354 SLXs in August, down from 432 in July. The Acura was not on the market in August 1995.
Isuzu sent letters to owners of 94,000 Troopers from model years 1992 through 1996, advising them the company was investigating the claims and emphasizing the Trooper has a good safety record.
Pittle, however, says he hopes Isuzu will acknowledge it has a problem and work with Consumers Union to resolve the issue.
``There are some 35,000 owners who are driving around in a car that is a potential accident waiting to happen.″