LOS ANGELES - The U.S. Department of Justice plans to file suit against Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. to force it to recall up to 2.2 million vehicles.
The suit is an escalation of a 2-year-old charge by California environmental regulators that Toyota used faulty on-board emission equipment on some cars.
Among the possible results of the suit: a recall of about 300,000 cars in California, a nationwide recall of 2.2 million vehicles and up to $5,000 fines for every noncompliant car.
Toyota's original quarrel is with the California Air Resources Board, which oversees environmental issues for California. But last year, the federal EPA joined CARB's fight against Toyota. The Justice Department is responsible for enforcing the rulings of federal agencies.
The argument centers on how accurate Toyota's OBD-II on-board diagnostics systems are.
The EPA and CARB claim that the OBD-II systems on all Toyota and Lexus vehicles built from 1996 through mid-1998 model years give incorrect emission-control readings. That would allow the vehicles to pollute more than they should.
Toyota has denied that claim ever since the California regulators began investigating Toyota vehicle emissions nearly two years ago.
Toyota maintains that its vehicles passed CARB's regulatory tests in 1995. But the board reinterpreted its guidelines in 1997. Toyota claims the agency is now trying to force it to retrofit vehicles built prior to that time.
Toyota said it has complied in good faith. When CARB changed the rules in 1997, Toyota began a running change on its production lines, the company said. But Toyota sees no legal grounds for being required to change earlier models, said James Olson, Toyota Motor Sales senior vice president of external affairs.
'We firmly believe our vehicles comply with the testing regulations as originally written,' Olson said.
None of the vehicles poses an emissions concern to the environment or a safety threat to consumers, Olson said.
But CARB spokesman Jerry Martin said the question involves more than that.
'It wasn't so much that we came up with a new test. We found that Toyota vehicles did not perform on the road the same way they did in the laboratory, and that's the discrepancy. We could not duplicate those lab results on the road,' Martin said.
EPA and Justice Department spokespersons said it is policy not to comment on investigations.