- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 18, 2010

TOKYO | Could the Corolla be next?

Toyota Motor Corp. said Wednesday it’s looking into complaints of power-steering problems with its popular compact car and is considering a recall as one option. That would be another blow to the world’s largest automaker, already grappling with a spate of safety lapses ranging from sticking gas pedals to braking problems.

President Akio Toyoda also said he’s not going to Washington to appear at congressional hearings next week, preferring to leave that to his U.S.-based executives while he focuses on beefing up quality controls, though he would consider attending if invited.

“We are sending the best people to the hearing, and I hope to back up the efforts from headquarters,” Mr. Toyoda told journalists at his third news conference in two weeks.

Mr. Toyoda promised a backup safety system in all future models worldwide that will override the accelerator if the gas and brake pedals are pressed at the same time. Acceleration problems are behind the bulk of the automaker’s recalls of 8.5 million vehicles since November.

But Toyota’s woes could spread.

The executive in charge of quality control, Shinichi Sasaki, said the company is examining fewer than 100 complaints about power steering in the Corolla, one of its best-selling models.

Mr. Sasaki said drivers may have felt as though they were losing control over the steering, but it was not clear why. He mentioned problems with the braking system or tires as possible underlying causes of the steering problem. U.S. officials also are investigating the complaints.

Mr. Sasaki stressed that the company’s internal investigation was preliminary and no decision had been made, but he said the company was prepared to supply fixes, including a recall as one possibility, if it find defects.

The company is putting customers first in a renewed effort to salvage its reputation and will do whatever is necessary, Mr. Sasaki said. Toyota sold nearly 1.3 million Corollas worldwide last year.

Toyota’s top North American official, Yoshi Inaba, will likely face a grilling next week from U.S. lawmakers over safety lapses.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and National Highway Transportation Safety Administration Administrator David Strickland also are expected to testify at a Feb. 24 hearing by the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Toyota’s gas-pedal problems and one by the House Energy and Commerce Committee the next day. The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee plans a March 2 hearing.

Mr. Toyoda acknowledged that his company had grown too quickly globally and that the measures in place in Japan to check on defect reports hadn’t been enough to deal with “the scale” of America.

Nevertheless, he stressed again that he and his company have nothing to hide. “We are not covering up anything, and we are not running away from anything,” he said.

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