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Graciela Gulbranson of Minnetonka keeps a rosary in her 2002 Toyota Camry and prays every time she gets in it.
And that was before Toyota recalled 8.5 million vehicles in recent months.
She said she was backing down her sloped driveway with her foot on the brake last summer when the car accelerated at full throttle, shot across the street and into the neighbor's yard, where it spun around before taking out a neighbor's tree. The $5,800 in damage to the car has been repaired and the tree replaced, but Gulbranson's faith in the car and Toyota remains shaken.
"I just say 'God watch out for me because here I go,'" when she gets in her car, with the beads tucked in the console.
Gulbranson and her husband, Michael, vow they'll never buy another Toyota. "It's not even worth the gas in the gas tank," said Michael Gulbranson. "I'm stuck with this lemon."
Since Toyota has recalled vehicles across its lineup -- including in its luxury Lexus division -- for issues from cars accelerating on their own to not braking fast enough, industry watchers have seen Toyota's once-sterling reputation take a beating.
"We've seen loyalty to Toyota be knocked down 6 to 7 percent compared to the same period last year," said James Bell, an analyst with Kelley Blue Book, best known for pricing used vehicles. "It's definitely a crack in their armor." But he added that he expects the situation to eventually blow over.
Sales of Toyotas have been falling, down 16 percent last month from a year ago. And Kelley Blue Book is reporting used-car values of recalled Toyotas have dropped 1 to 3 percent in the wake of the recall. Toyota has launched a massive advertising blitz to try to reassure jittery consumers.
A rising toll
Since 1999, at least 2,262 Toyota and Lexus owners have reported to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the media, the courts and to the consumer group Safety Research & Strategies (SRS) that their vehicles have accelerated suddenly and unexpectedly in a variety of scenarios. These incidents have resulted in 815 crashes and 341 injuries, according to a recent SRS report.
Those data only include complaints to the NHTSA through mid-January, but there has been a surge in recent weeks, as the government has increased the death toll to 34 from 21 deaths allegedly attributed to the problem.
SRS said 20 of the cases of sudden unintended acceleration happened in Minnesota, resulting in six crashes, three injuries and no deaths.
The group, along with other safety advocates, is pushing for Toyota to expand the recall, noting that about half its compiled complaints are from drivers of vehicles that haven't been recalled. Of the Minnesota complaints, only seven of those vehicles are under recall.
Sudden acceleration "is occurring among a wider range of Toyota models and model years than has been investigated or remedied," SRS said in its report.
'Angel on my shoulder'
The current Camry recall, for example, covers only 2007-2010 models. But last week, SRS issued a report that from September 2003 to March 2004, eight people may have died because of sudden unintended acceleration events in 2002-2004 Camry models such as Gulbransons.
"I feel like there was an angel on my shoulder that day," Graciela Gulbranson said of her June 5, 2009, accident. If someone had been walking or driving on the street at that moment, her out-of-control vehicle could have easily struck them, said Gulbranson, who won't let her daughter drive the vehicle.
The Gulbransons immediately filed a complaint with the NHTSA and took the car to Rudy Luther Toyota, which they said chalked it up to human error. The Gulbransons, however, are convinced that the car malfunctioned. Now, in light of the recent recalls they asked Toyota to reopen their case.
Toyota told them last week that it will not reopen that case because it's a "different problem" than the current recall but that they could file a brand-new case, which they intend to do.
Koua Fong Lee is hoping Toyota's massive recall will lead to his release from prison. In 2008, he was sentenced to eight years in prison in connection with a high-speed crash two years earlier that led to the deaths of three people in St. Paul. Lee said he was unable to stop his vehicle as he exited Interstate 94. Now his attorney, Brent Schafer, wants Lee's 1996 Toyota Camry reexamined.
The whole situation has left consumers in a bad situation with few options, said Sean Kane, president of SRS. For now, he said, all Toyota owners can do is research how to control the vehicle in an emergency situation and wait for Toyota to come completely clean.
"We've heard shifting stories. First it was drivers, then it was floor mats, then it was sticky pedals. These concerns keep coming up from consumers," he said. "We're not getting answers and I think that's only fueling the concern."
'Like a bucking bronco'
Norm Talsoe of Minnetonka reported to the NHTSA three cases of sudden acceleration with his 2000 Lexus LS400 in 2004 but said he had three more beyond that in 2006. In October 2007, the NHTSA sent him a letter, saying it would not look into his case because it had already turned down a similar one for further investigation.
Talsoe described his car as acting like a "bucking bronco" by accelerating quickly when he was moving his foot off the brake to start forward but before touching the accelerator. "When that thing jumped away from me it was as if someone floored the accelerator and I was bracing myself with both feet on the brake," said Talsoe, who said he was lucky enough to have his wits about him to put it in neutral. He believes an electronic problem was to blame.
Another complaint from Minnesota involved a 2008 Camry, a recalled vehicle, that the owner was pulling into a parking spot on Oct. 11, 2009, when the pedal stuck and the brakes didn't work. The car crashed into a tree about 5 to 6 feet away. If the tree hadn't been there, the driver reported to the NHTSA that the car could have killed or injured children playing soccer nearby. The report said one person was injured but more details about the crash, including the driver's name, were redacted from public viewing.
A screaming acclerator
Kevin Fink was driving his 2008 Sienna home to Northfield on I-35W after a Twins game on April 1, 2008. His 19-year-old son, Brian, was in the passenger seat and his other son, Connor, 16, was in the minivan's middle row with a friend.
After fully accelerating to pass another car, Fink said it appeared that the gas pedal did not come back up. With traffic all around him, he kept both hands on the wheel and calmly told Brian that the accelerator was stuck and that he needed help. Brian switched the car to neutral, which didn't seem to work in those frantic seconds. He then shifted it to park, then reverse and back to neutral again, while his dad pressed down on the brake.
After 10 to 15 seconds of what Fink described as a "harrowing experience," the car slowed down to 40 or 45 mph on the turn to westbound Crosstown Hwy. 62. After calming down in a parking lot, they proceeded to Northfield. But they never went more than 55 mph and stayed in the right-hand lane.
"What I was left with more than anything was the screaming of the accelerator," he said, describing the incident as surreal. "I'm convinced that the throttle was fully open."
The next day, he took the car to his local repair shop and his Toyota dealership, which found nothing wrong. But that is of little reassurance. Fink is convinced the car, which has not been recalled, should be.
"I have a car where it happened and it almost killed us," he said.
Like the Gulbransons, the Finks don't let their two boys drive the Toyota.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Suzanne Ziegler • 612-673-1707