LOS ANGELES -- Consumer Reports, America's widely respected buyer's guide, will be forced to defend its own credibility in a trial that gets under way this week in Los Angeles federal court.
Isuzu Motors has accused the magazine and its nonprofit parent, Consumers Union, of rigging tests to show that the 1995-96 Trooper sport utility vehicle displayed a propensity to roll over when making emergency turns.
The Japanese automaker claims it suffered more than $200 million in damages after Consumer Reports panned the Trooper in October 1996, causing a 54 percent drop in sales.
The magazine, which has been critiquing products for 64 years, denies that it skewed the tests and says the lawsuit is a public relations gambit aimed at silencing the voice of a fiercely independent consumer watchdog.
Both sides already have poured millions of dollars into preparations for the product-disparagement and defamation trial, which begins today.
Since 1968, Consumer Reports has been sued a dozen times for knocking products and has never lost a case or paid an out-of-court settlement. But this legal battle could prove to be the most challenging. And looming just ahead is a companion suit by Suzuki Motor Corp., whose Samurai SUV was branded rollover-prone in 1988.
Although all vehicles with high centers of gravity have a potential to tip over, Consumers Union says that in 12 years of testing more than 80 SUVs, pickup trucks and minivans, only the 1988 Suzuki Samurai and the 1995-96 Isuzu Trooper performed so badly as to warrant a ''not acceptable'' rating.
According to Isuzu, however, the test drivers caused the Trooper to tip by turning the steering wheel faster and farther than real-world drivers would ever do in the worst emergencies.
Isuzu said that the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration rejected Consumer Reports' rollover tests as unscientific on grounds that they were subject to driver influence.
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