LOS ANGELES — Toyota Motor Corp. is usually the darling of the Los Angeles Auto Show, but testy relations with environmentalists and questions about quality are making the show a headache for the automaker this year.
It doesn't help that Toyota chose to introduce a full-size sport utility vehicle at the show, and the redesigned Sequoia doesn't have a hybrid option like full-size SUVs from General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC that are debuting across the show floor. The Los Angeles show opens to the public Friday after two days of media previews.
After the Sequoia was introduced Wednesday, an environmental activist with a video camera approached Toyota's general manager for U.S. sales, Bob Carter, and asked why the company won't withdraw from a lawsuit against California, which has sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to establish tougher fuel economy rules.
Carter refused to answer and knocked the camera out of Brent Olson's hands. Olson, of San Francisco-based Rainforest Action Network, was eventually led away by two policemen.
A handful of protesters also picketed Toyota outside the show and planned further protests Thursday.
After the spat, Carter said Toyota and environmentalists have more in common than not, and that Toyota supports tougher fuel economy standards but doesn't want them decided at the state level.
"We believe it's best applied at the federal level," he said. "We're a full-line manufacturer and we want to meet consumer needs."
He added that despite the rise in fuel prices, many U.S. buyers simply need the utility and space of a full-size SUV.
The Sequoia has a new 5.7-liter, V-8 engine that is more powerful _ at 381 horsepower _ and more fuel efficient than the old engine. It also has improved aerodynamics to save fuel, and the company plans to introduce an ethanol-capable version in the fall of 2008. Pricing wasn't announced for the new Sequoia, which goes on sale in December.
Fuel economy numbers haven't been released, but Carter said they'll improve by about 12 percent over the old model, or 2 to 3 miles per gallon. The current Sequoia gets around 15 mpg in the city, compared with 21 mpg for the new hybrids from Chrysler and GM, including the Dodge Durango and Chrysler Aspen SUVs, the Chevrolet Tahoe SUV and Chevrolet Silverado pickup.
Carter said Toyota plans to offer hybrid versions of every vehicle in its lineup and is also studying combinations such as hybrid diesels. But it hasn't managed to develop a system that works well in large trucks like GM and Chrysler did in their consortium with Daimler and BMW.
"We're not there yet. There's no technology to meet all our customers' needs," he said.
Toyota's sterling reputation has taken a beating in recent months because of quality problems and environmentalists' anger. Toyota also was stung this fall by the departures of some key executives, including its North American chief, Jim Press, who left to become vice chairman of Chrysler LLC, and its U.S. manager of Lexus, Jim Farley, who went to Ford Motor Co.
Last month, Consumer Reports said Toyota "is showing cracks in its armor" and will no longer get automatic recommendations from the magazine when it releases new or redesigned vehicles. It also removed several Toyota vehicles from its recommended list because of quality issues.
Toyota recalled 766,000 vehicles in the United States last year, down from 2.2 million in 2005 but still up significantly from the 210,000 vehicles it recalled in 2003.
Also last month, the Natural Resources Defense Council and other groups sent thousands of e-mails and faxes to Toyota urging it to support a Senate energy bill that would set a 35 mpg average fuel economy standard by 2020. Toyota backs a more modest approach on so-called CAFE standards that would require 32 to 35 mpg by 2022.
The company's most recent embarrassment came earlier this week, when it pulled an ad that called Fresno a "low-budget tourist stop" after U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein wrote to complain.
Jim Lentz, president of Toyota's U.S. division, said the troubles are the result of Toyota's phenomenal growth.
"We knew we would become more of a target in terms of looking at what we do, good or bad," Lentz said.
And Toyota continues to have a lot in its favor. Dealers say the negative news hasn't had much effect on sales, Lentz said. The company still has 17 of the 39 most reliable vehicles on Consumer Reports' influential list, far more than any other automaker.
Toyota last week reported a hefty $4 billion profit in its fiscal second quarter, the same day that GM reported a record $39 billion quarterly loss because of accounting changes. Toyota also is hot on the heels of GM to become the world's largest carmaker. Toyota sold 7.05 million vehicles in the first nine months of this year, just 10,000 less than GM.