Toyota recalls 437,000 Priuses, hybrids globally

Tuesday, February 9, 2010 - 1:51pm

TOKYO – Toyota is recalling 437,000 Prius and other hybrid vehicles worldwide to fix brake problems — the latest embarrassing safety lapse 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."

The number of vehicles recalled globally by Toyota Motor Corp. now has ballooned to 8.5 million, including for floor mats that can trap gas pedals and faulty gas pedals that are slow to return to the idle position. The 2010 model of the Prius — the world's top-selling hybrid and Japan's top-selling car — wasn't 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 in cold conditions and on some 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.

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 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.

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 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."

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 cooperating with NHTSA's investigation.

Also Tuesday, Toyota said it will voluntarily recall about 7,300 four-cylinder Camry sedans produced early in the 2010 model year because of a possible brake fluid leak. Dealers will inspect the cars for a power steering hose that could come in contact with a brake tube, causing a leak. The leak means it could take longer for the vehicle to stop, the company said. Owners will get letters starting in mid-February.

In a recall notice delivered to NHTSA on Tuesday, Toyota said it first received a report of Prius braking problems in Japan in August. The company investigated and did not find any abnormality with the vehicle.

After receiving a similar report from the U.S. in October, Toyota's tests concluded that a glitch in the Prius antilock brake system software could reduce braking force when drivers traveled across bumpy surfaces. The company wrote that "although this system was operating as intended," it decided to make a change to its production line in January to address the problem.

But by February, Toyota received more complaints from drivers who said they had the same braking issue, especially during the winter. The result was that "vehicle stopping distance may increase, relative to the customers' expectations for a given pedal force," the notice to NHTSA stated. That prompted the automaker to issue its broad recall.

Toyota first noticed the Camry problem during a factory inspection in March. The company decided to recall the vehicles even though it did not receive any consumer complaints.

The company'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.

Toyota was one of the first companies to mass-market a hybrid that combines an electric motor with a gas engine, introducing the Prius in Japan in 1997. Its high gas mileage made it popular among environmentally conscious drivers, especially when gas prices spiked two years ago.

But the complexity of the Prius, a highly computerized car, has led to problems in the past. In 2005, the company repaired 75,000 of them to fix software glitches that caused the engine to stall. It has also had trouble with headlights going out.

Shares in Toyota rose 2.9 percent Tuesday to 3,375 yen, but are still down about 20 percent since Jan. 21, when it announced the gas pedal recall.

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