WASHINGTON - Toyota said Thursday it is evaluating brake problems with the 2010 Prius gas-electric hybrid, but no decision has been made about a recall.
A company spokesman said the automaker is co-operating fully with a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration probe into brake problems, but said it's too soon to talk about a recall.
Earlier Thursday, the safety agency said it opened an investigation into the Prius, saying it had received 124 reports from consumers about its brakes, including four reports of crashes. The government is investigating reports that antilock brakes can fail momentarily on some 2010 models in slippery conditions or on rough roads.
Toyota Canada said Thursday it is aware of "a small number of isolated reports of inconsistent brake feel in certain 2010 model year Prius vehicles and we are investigating those reports." The Canadian division said it is working with Transport Canada on the issue, "however, until our investigation is completed, it would be premature to comment."
Toyota has two assembly plants in southern Ontario that employ a total of around 6,500 people. Toyota Canada builds the Corolla, the Matrix and the Lexus RX350 in Cambridge and the RAV4 sport utility vehicle in Woodstock.
The company says it made a change in the 2010 braking system last month to correct cars in production. The company has not made a decision about cars on the road.
Asked if Toyota would recall the 2010 Priuses, spokesman Brian Lyons said: "It's too soon to call at this point. We will of course fully co-operate with NHTSA in that investigation."
Lyons also said Toyota is checking other hybrid models in its lineup to see if they have the same braking system as the 2010 model, but so far he is not aware of any other models being involved.
"As part of our normal problem-solving process, we would look at similar technology in similar vehicles," he said.
The U.S. investigation, while preliminary, represents another setback for Toyota, which has been battered with two major recalls in the United States covering millions of vehicles. Those involve gas pedals that can get trapped under floor mats or become stuck on their own and fail to return to the idle position. The safety probes have challenged Toyota's long-standing reputation for building safe, quality vehicles.
The Prius was not part of the recall spanning the U.S., Europe and China over sticking gas pedals in eight top-selling models including the Camry. That recall involved 2.3 million cars in the U.S. alone.
NHTSA said investigators have talked to consumers and conducted pre-investigatory field work. The preliminary evaluation involves about 37,000 vehicles in the United States.
"Safety is our top priority," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. NHTSA said LaHood spoke with Toyota president Akio Toyoda late Wednesday and was assured by the executive that Toyota was taking the safety concerns seriously.
Toyota said in a statement it would fully co-operate with NHTSA's investigation.
The U.S. investigation came after the Japanese government ordered Toyota to investigate brake problems in the Prius, the world's best-selling hybrid.
The new version of the gas-electric Prius hybrid went on sale in the U.S. and Japan in May 2009.
Paul Nolasco, a company spokesman in Japan, said the time lag for brakes kicking in felt by drivers stem from the two systems in a gas-electric hybrid - the gas-engine and the electric motor.
When the car moves on a bumpy or slippery surface, a driver can feel a pause in the braking when the vehicle switches between the traditional hydraulic brakes and the electronically operated braking system, he said. The brakes work if the driver keeps pushing the pedal, he said.
Toyota acknowledged the brake problem while reporting a US$1.7-billion profit for its October-December quarter.
NHTSA said it opens 100 investigations every year and there are currently 40 open defect investigations, three of which involve Toyota. NHTSA said its defect and compliance investigations have resulted in 524 recalls involving 23.5 million vehicles during the past three years.
Toyota senior managing director Takahiko Ijichi defended the automaker's quality standards.
"We have not sacrificed the quality for the sake of saving costs," he said. "Quality is our lifeline. We want our customers to feel safe and regain their trust as soon as possible."
Toyota for the first time gave an estimate of the costs of the global gas-pedal recall. The $2 billion total represents $1.1 billion for repairs and $770 million to $880 million in lost sales.
Toyota is expecting to lose 100,000 in vehicle sales because of the recall fallout - 80,000 of them in North America.