In latest blow, Toyota recalls 437,000 Prius and other hybrids globally for brake problems

The Associated Press ~ staff The News
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TOKYO - About 437,000 Prius and other hybrid vehicles, including more than 3,000 in Canada, are being recalled worldwide by Toyota to fix brake problems in the latest in a string of embarrassing safety lapses at the world's largest automaker.
"I don't see Toyota as an infallible company that never makes mistakes," President Akio Toyoda said at a news conference Tuesday. "We will face up to the facts and correct the problem, putting customers' safety and convenience first."
"Let me assure everyone that we will redouble our commitment to quality as the lifeline of our company," Toyoda added.
The number of vehicles recalled globally by Toyota Motor Corp. has ballooned to 8.5 million, including for floor mats which can trap gas pedals and faulty gas pedals that are slow to return to the idle position.
The recall of the 2010 Prius and 2010 Lexus HS250h were not part of the earlier recalls.
There have been about 200 complaints in Japan and the U.S. about a delay when the brakes in the Prius were pressed on snowy or bumpy roads. The delay doesn't indicate a brake failure. The company says the problem can be fixed in 40 minutes with new software that oversees the controls of the antilock brakes.
Toyota Canada Inc. said it would conduct a voluntary recall on almost 3,300 2010 model year Prius vehicles and over 300 Lexus 2010 HS250h vehicles to update software in their anti-lock brake systems. No other Toyota, Lexus, or Scion vehicles are involved in the recall.
Separately, Toyota Canada said it will also recall 393 early production 2010 model year Camry vehicles equipped with four-cylinder engines to inspect for a power steering hose that may be in contact with a front brake tube.
This contact could lead to a hole in the brake tube and cause a brake fluid leak, increased brake pedal stroke and greater vehicle stopping distance.
About 7,300 of the cars are being recalled in the United States.
And U.S. federal safety officials also said they would review complaints from Toyota Corolla drivers about steering difficulties on their vehicles.
NHTSA said it has received about 80 complaints from drivers of 2009 and 2010 Corollas. Many said their cars can wander when they drive on the highway, making it hard to stay in lanes.
NHTSA said it will determine if a formal safety investigation is warranted. But agency officials also stressed that it was standard procedure to review the tens of thousands of driver complaints they get every year on a wide range of vehicles.
Separately, there was some good news from Toyota Canada, which said production had resumed as planned Tuesday at its plant in Woodstock, Ont., where it produces the RAV4, and in Cambridge, Ont., which produces the Corolla and Matrix.
Both had been shut down last week while the company installed a fix for the sticky accelerator problem, although one production line in Cambridge that builds the unaffected Lexus RX350 remained in operation.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement Tuesday that Toyota's leaders have assured him they are taking safety concerns "very seriously." The statement said LaHood's agency will stay in constant communication with Toyota to hold the company to its promise.
Also, State Farm, the largest auto insurer in the U.S., said it alerted federal regulators late in 2007 about a rise in reports of unexpected acceleration in Toyota vehicles. Congressional investigators are looking into whether the government missed warning signs.
Toyota officials went to Japan's Transport Ministry earlier Tuesday to formally notify officials the company is recalling the 2010 Prius gas-electric hybrid - the world's top-selling hybrid car. The automaker is also recalling two other hybrid models in Japan, the Lexus HS250h sedan, sold in the U.S. and Japan, and the Sai, which is sold only in Japan.
The 223,000 cars being recalled in Japan include nearly 200,000 Priuses sold from April last year through Monday, according to papers the automaker filed with the ministry. The Prius is Japan's top-selling car.
In the U.S., Toyota will recall 133,000 Prius cars and 14,500 Lexus HS250h vehicles. Nearly 53,000 Priuses are also being recalled in Europe. Toyota is suspending production of the Sai and Lexus HS250h in Japan until the updated software for those models is ready.
If drivers experience a delayed reaction when depressing the brakes in any of these models, they should keep pressing, according to Toyota and the transport ministry.
The Prius repairs will start in Japan on Wednesday. U.S. owners will start receiving letters about the recall next week.
Toyoda, the president, has been criticized for being largely invisible during the two weeks after the company announced Jan. 21 the gas pedal recall in the U.S., Europe and China.
He apologized at his first public news conference last Friday, but was criticized by the Japanese media for failing to outline concrete steps to tackle the safety crisis and reassure customers.
In contrast to his halting English in response to questions from foreign reporters at last week's news conference, Toyoda seemed much better prepared Tuesday, reading from an English statement after doing so in Japanese.
"We will do everything in our power to regain the confidence of our customers," Toyoda said.
He said he planned to go to the U.S. soon to talk with American workers and dealers to bring the ranks together.
Analysts said fears of an even bigger consumer backlash prodded Toyota into recalling the Prius.
"If they hadn't done the recalls, their image would have suffered even more," said Ryoichi Saito, auto analyst at Mizuho Investors Securities in Tokyo.
The Japanese transport minister rapped Toyota as reacting too slowly, and said he was meeting U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos on Wednesday to exchange views about Toyota's recalls and make sure U.S.-Japan relations remained on good terms.
"The consideration for customers was lacking in Toyota," Seiji Maehara told reporters, after a meeting with Toyoda. "We hope this never happens again."
Toyoda, who visited the minister after his news conference, apologized and explained the recalls, Maehara said.
U.S. safety officials are investigating the brake problem.
It is suspected in four crashes resulting in two minor injuries, according to data gathered by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Toyota says it's co-operating with NHTSA's investigation.
Problems with hybrid braking systems haven't been limited to Toyota.
Ford Motor Co. said last week it plans to fix 17,600 Mercury Milan and Ford Fusion gas-electric hybrids because of a software problem that can give drivers the impression that the brakes have failed. The automaker says the problem occurs in transition between two braking systems and at no time are drivers without brakes.
Toyota's plug-in hybrid is also being recalled in Japan, Europe and the U.S., but in small numbers because it is a largely experimental model for rental and government use.
The Prius holds a cherished spot in Toyota's vehicle lineup and is symbolic of its leadership in the "green" car market.
The Toyota executive overseeing quality, Shinichi Sasaki, said the delay that Prius drivers can feel when braking lasts for a fraction of a second as the antilock brakes kick in.
The problem happens only on snowy or bumpy surfaces, and the complaints did not become more numerous until winter, Sasaki said.
But Toyoda acknowledged the company could have done better in picking up on the complaints, managing the crisis and sending a message to car owners on a fix.
In the U.S., Toyota will add five more centres in addition to the current three that investigate customer complaints, Sasaki said.
"When compared to the size of Japan, America is so much bigger and so our network for gathering information was not enough," he said.
Shares in Toyota rose 2.9 per cent Tuesday to 3,375 yen, but are still down about 20 per cent since Jan. 21, when it announced the gas pedal recall.
- With files from The Canadian Press

Organizations: Toyota Canada Inc., National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Lexus State Farm Transport Ministry Mizuho Investors Securities Ford Motor Co.

Geographic location: United States, Japan, TOKYO Canada Cambridge Europe Woodstock China

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