(Sam Abuelsamid, Autoblog).

Toyota Motor Corp. has taken flak from congressmen, regulators, safety advocates and riled-up consumers, but the company soon will get a vote of confidence from a very influential source.

Perhaps as early as next week, Consumer Reports plans to restore its “recommended” rating to eight Toyota models that were recalled to fix potentially sticky accelerator pedals.

On Jan. 29, the magazine had suspended its “recommended” rating for the Toyota Avalon, Camry, Corolla, Highlander, Matrix, Rav4, Sequoia, Tundra and the Pontiac Vibe, which is a rebadged Matrix.

The magazine took action after Toyota included 2.3 million vehicles in the pedal recall.

This graph shows how the major automakers rank based on their average predicted-reliability scores. Those scores are the overall reliability as a percentage better or worse than the average of all cars. The bar shows the range of scores between a manufacturer's worst and best models. The zero line represents the average of all cars in our 2009 survey for which we calculated predicted reliability. (Consumer Reports)

David Champion, senior director of Consumer Reports’ automotive test center, says he has been monitoring Toyota’s progress on the repairs. “We’re looking at a daily basis at the recalls,” said Champion. “We want to be sure that the recalls are being performed.”

If the recalls continue to run smoothly, “we’ll look at reinstating the cars” -- perhaps as early as next week, Champion said. He allowed himself one loophole: “We want to see if anything bubbles up from the Senate hearings.”

Champion says he’s prepared to take action because he has not seen any convincing evidence that consumer complaints about sudden acceleration were caused by electronic malfunctions.

“A lot of people pointed to the electronics,” he said, “but I don’t see anything at the moment that points to an electronic issue.”

Champion noted that all nine of the models involved in the recall had scored well in Consumer Reports’ 2009 road tests and reliability surveys. Moreover, Toyota scored well in the 2010 reliability rankings, which the magazine published in its April issue.

Consumer Reports posted those rankings on its website Tuesday.

Out of 33 brands sold in the U.S., Scion was ranked No. 1. The Toyota brand ranked third, right behind Honda. Lexus scored 7th.

Which leads to a fundamental question: In light of Toyota’s recalls, are these rankings accurate? And are the vehicles safe?

Champion defends Toyota’s strong results in the 2010 reliability rankings, which are based on thousands of detailed questionnaires filled out by the magazine’s subscribers.

First of all, very few motorists actually experience the problem which the recall is designed to fix, Champion notes.  Second, motorists who get a recall notice can bring their cars to the dealership at their own convenience. The recall hasn’t left them stranded by the side of the road.

What about all those unexplained incidents of sudden acceleration? More than two-thirds of those reported incidents occurred in vehicles not covered by the recalls.

Champion cautions that Toyota -- or its critics -- eventually may find new defects that caused some of the accidents. Other incidents of sudden acceleration may never be explained.

But every mass-market automaker gets such complaints, Champion says. And he isn’t going to withhold a “recommended” rating if some of those complaints remain unresolved.

However, Champion isn’t willing to give Toyota a free pass. He believes the company moved slowly on some of its recalls, and that the company should have taken customer complaints more seriously.

He also says the quality of Toyota vehicles has measurably declined in recent years.

In 2007, the magazine noticed a deterioration in the fit and finish of some Toyotas. The body panels didn’t align perfectly, the quality of some materials had fallen, and the overall vehicle quality suffered.

In 2008, Consumers Reports decided it would no longer bestow automatic “recommended” ratings on all Toyota models.

What went wrong? As Toyota gained market share, it added too many new models too quickly. Concludes Champion: “I think Toyota grew too quickly and took their eye off the ball.”

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