Toyota woes mount

Associated Press

TOKYO — Toyota will recall 270,000 Prius hybrid vehicles over brake problems in the United States and Japan, a report said today, while the beleaguered auto giant launched an investigation into possible problems with the brakes in its luxury Lexus hybrid.

The recall would affect the new Prius hybrid model, and Toyota Motor Corp. would soon notify Japan’s transport ministry and the U.S. Department of Transportation of the recall, Japan’s top business newspaper, Nihon Keizai, said Friday.

Japanese public broadcaster NHK also said Toyota was considering a recall of Prius hybrids in the U.S. and Japan.

Takayuki Fujimoto, a transport ministry official, said the government has yet to receive a recall notice from Toyota. Toyota cannot announce a recall in Japan until it notifies the ministry.

Toyota spokeswoman Ririko Takeuchi said today that Toyota had not yet decided whether to recall the Prius. “Nothing has been decided on whether we will recall or not,” Takeuchi said.

The new Prius hybrid went on sale in Japan and the United States in May 2009. More than 170,000 of the new Prius models have been sold in Japan, with around 103,000 sold in the U.S. since May.

Toyota, reeling from massive global recalls of 4.5 million vehicles involving faulty gas pedals, acknowledged Thursday design problems with the brakes in its prized Prius.

Complaints about braking problems in the Prius the world’s top-selling gas-electric hybrid have been reported in the U.S. and Japan, combining to some 180.

Takeuchi said Toyota has launched a probe into the luxury Lexus HS250h hybrid model for possible brake problems in Japan and the United States as the vehicle uses the same brake system as the new Prius hybrid.

“We want to ensure safety for our customers,” Takeuchi said. Toyota has not received any complaints about the Lexus HS250h, she said. The luxury HS250h went on sale in Japan in July 2009, and September last year in North America.

In Tokyo, Toyota’s president apologized today for the massive global recalls over sticking gas pedals as the automaker scrambled to repair a damaged reputation and sliding sales.

But Akio Toyoda, appointed to the top job at Toyota Motor Corp. last June, said the company is still deciding what steps to take to fix brake problems in the Prius.

Speaking at a hastily announced news conference that lasted an hour, a stern-looking Toyoda promised to beef up quality control.

“We are facing a crisis,” he said, publicly confronting the automaker’s safety problems for the first time since the global recalls were announced Jan. 21.

He said the company is setting up a special committee he would head himself. It would review internal checks, go over consumer complaints and listen to outside experts to come up with a solution to the widening quality problems.

“I offer my apologies for the worries,” he said. “Many customers are wondering whether their cars are OK.”

Toyoda, grandson of the automaker’s founder, said the company was moving quickly on the global recalls covering 4.5 million vehicles for sticking gas pedals, about half of them in the U.S.

Toyota would fully cooperate with the investigation by U.S. federal authorities into Prius problems, Toyoda said.

A less-than-perfect Prius, the vehicle of choice for Hollywood movie stars like Leonardo Dicaprio, threatens to be an even more serious blow for Toyota’s image than the gas pedal recalls. The hybrid is a symbol of Toyota’s technological prowess and ambitions to lead the auto industry in green, low-pollution cars.

Toyota is also investigating possible brake problems with its luxury Lexus hybrid and the Sai compact sedan, both of which use the same brake system as the Prius. Toyota has not received any complaints about the Lexus HS250h and the probe is to ensure safety, it has said. The Sai is not sold outside Japan.

Toyoda, 53, has been criticized for not coming out sooner to answer questions about the flood of quality problems that have hit Toyota.

Masaaki Sato, an auto industry expert who has written books on Toyota and its Japanese rival Honda, said today’s public appearance was the company’s last chance to keep the situation from worsening.

“He should have come out a week ago,” Sato said of Toyoda during an appearance on a popular late night news program following the press conference. “After all the foot dragging, he was pushed into a corner.”

Sato also criticized Toyoda for having to be prodded into action in the U.S. by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who called the Toyota president for talks.