Toyota probes Corolla steering, considers recall

Wednesday, February 17, 2010 - 11:29am

TOKYO – Toyota is considering a recall of its hot-selling Corolla subcompact after complaints about power steering problems — another blow to the world's largest automaker already reeling from a string of recalls for safety troubles.

Despite pressure from some lawmakers, President Akio Toyoda said he won't be attending the U.S. congressional hearing on the automaker's quality lapses, entrusting the job to U.S.-based executives — though would consider an appearance if the committee requests it. He said he wanted to focus on improving quality worldwide.

"I trust that our officials in the U.S. will amply answer the questions," Toyoda said Wednesday in his third news conference in two weeks. "We are sending the best people to the hearing, and I hope to back up the efforts from headquarters."

He said Yoshi Inaba, who heads Toyota Motor Corp.'s North American unit, was more familiar with the U.S. situation and was the best executive to deal with the hearing. Toyoda said he was still making plans to go to the U.S. and dates have yet to be set.

But in an alarming disclosure that could widen Toyota's recall crisis, the executive in charge of quality controls, Shinichi Sasaki, said Toyota was taking seriously the complaints about power-steering problems in the Corolla, the world's best-selling car.

Speaking at Toyota's Tokyo office, Sasaki said the company was putting customers first in a renewed effort to salvage its reputation and would do whatever is necessary if a Corolla fix is needed.

He said it was still uncertain if a Corolla recall would be necessary, but it is an option the automaker is considering.

He didn't disclose model years or regions that could be affected and said there have been fewer than 100 complaints. Toyota sold nearly 1.3 million Corolla cars worldwide last year.

Drivers may feel as though they were losing control over the steering, but it was unclear why, Sasaki said. He mentioned problems with the braking system or tires as possible underlying reasons for the steering problem.

U.S. federal safety officials have also said they are examining complaints from Corolla owners about steering problems.

Toyota has already recalled 8.5 million vehicles globally during the past four months because of problems with sticking gas pedals, floor mats trapping accelerators and faulty brake programming.

Its once pristine reputation for quality has been hammered, and Toyota's share of the critical North American market has nose-dived. Last month was the first time since February 1998 that Toyota's monthly U.S. sales fell below 100,000 vehicles, according to Ward's AutoInfoBank.

Koji Endo, managing director at Advanced Research Japan, said the Corolla problems, if they expand into a recall, would deal another major blow to Toyota.

"If Toyota has to recall Corollas, I wouldn't be surprised if they have to recall more than a million units again. It's going to be another big, big negative," said Endo.

But others said Toyota was sending a message it was going to be quick and thorough about maintaining quality.

"It really shows the company has learned its lesson from the recall debacle by starting to announce every investigation far more quickly," said Ryoichi Saito, auto analyst at Mizuho Investors Securities Co. in Tokyo.

Analysts had mixed views about Toyoda's reluctance to show up at Congress — some critical but others saying it was OK.

Unlike Western chief executives, Japanese presidents are not always expected to be an authoritative figure and play more of a team leader role in a culture that values harmony and consensus. That role is even more pronounced for Toyoda, the grandson of the company's founder who holds special significance for rank-and-file workers and dealers in Japan.

The U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is holding a hearing on Feb. 24 on Toyota's gas pedal problems. The House Energy and Commerce Committee has scheduled one the next day.

Inaba, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and NHTSA Administrator David Strickland are expected to testify at both meetings. The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee has scheduled a March 2 hearing.

At Wednesday's news conference, a solemn Toyoda reiterated his promise beef up quality controls at the world's No. 1 automaker.

He promised a brake-override system in all future models worldwide that will add a safety measure against acceleration problems that are behind the recent massive recalls. The system is a mechanism that overrides the accelerator if the gas and brake pedals are pressed at the same time.

"We are not covering up anything, and we are not running away from anything," Toyoda said.

The automaker said it was also dealing with questions about whether the gas pedal flaw was electronic and reiterated its investigation has not found any electronic problems.

But it has commissioned an independent research organization to test its electronic throttle system, and will release the findings as they become available.

Scrutiny of Toyota is growing. The U.S. Transportation Department has demanded Toyota hand over documents related to its massive recalls. The department wants to know how long the automaker knew of safety defects before taking action.

Reports of deaths in the U.S. connected to sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles have surged in recent weeks, with the alleged death toll reaching 34 since 2000, according to new consumer data gathered by the U.S. government.

Toyota told NHTSA in January that the problem appeared in Europe beginning in December 2008. Toyota has said it began fixes on that in August 2009, but the company failed to link that with gas pedal problems in the U.S., which surfaced in October 2009.

Toyota took full-page ads in major Japanese newspapers Wednesday to apologize for the recalls in Japan, which affect the flagship Prius hybrid and two other hybrid models.

"We apologize from the bottom of our hearts for the great inconvenience and worries that we have caused you all," the black-and-white ads say.

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