- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 7, 2010

TOKYO — Toyota said Sunday that it soon will announce plans to deal with braking problems in its prized Prius hybrid amid reports it has decided to issue a recall for the vehicle in Japan, a possible new embarrassment for the world’s biggest automaker.

Toyota Motor Corp. already has had to recall more than 7 million other cars in the United States, Europe and China over a sticky accelerator and floor mats that can get caught in the gas pedal. Those problems and criticism of Toyota’s response to them have sullied the stellar reputation for quality long enjoyed by one of Japan’s corporate icons.

Separately, the company has told dealers in the United States it is preparing to repair the brakes on thousands of Prius vehicles there, according to an e-mail sent by a company executive. It was unclear whether Toyota planned a formal U.S. recall.

“We will make an announcement soon on the action we plan to take,” spokeswoman Ririko Takeuchi said, commenting on media reports Sunday that the company has decided to issue a Japan recall. Ms. Takeuchi did not confirm those reports.

The Prius is the world’s top-selling gas-electric hybrid, and its fuel efficiency has drawn intense interest amid concerns about global warming and dependence on fossil fuels.

Toyota decided Saturday on a recall in Japan covering its latest Prius model and has notified domestic dealers, Japan’s largest newspaper, the Yomiuri, reported without naming sources. It said Toyota would announce the move early in the coming week after consulting with the Japanese government. Japan’s Kyodo News agency and TV Asahi carried similar reports. Kyodo said Toyota had started notifying dealers and that at least 170,000 vehicles in Japan would be subject to the recall.

Phone calls to the section at Japan’s Transport Ministry dealing with recalls went unanswered Sunday. None of about 10 Toyota dealers in Tokyo and the western Japanese city of Osaka contacted about the reports said they had received any notification, though some said they expected to have news this week.

Prius drivers in Japan and the United States have complained of a short delay before the brakes kick in — a flaw Toyota says can be fixed with a software programming change. The lag occurs as the car switches between brakes for the gas engine and the electric motor, a process that is key to the hybrid’s increased mileage.

The brake problem affects about 270,000 Priuses that were sold in the United States and Japan starting last May. The company blames a software glitch and says it already has fixed vehicles that went on sale since last month.

Bob Carter, a Toyota group vice president, sent an e-mail message Friday night to U.S. dealers saying the automaker is working on a Prius repair plan and will disclose more details early this week. At least 100 drivers of Prius cars in the U.S. have complained to the government that their brakes seemed to fail momentarily when they were driving on bumpy roads. The government says the problem is suspected in four crashes and two minor injuries.

Public awareness of the problem “has prompted considerable customer concern, speculation, and media attention due to the significance of the Prius image,” Mr. Carter said in the e-mail. “We want to assure our dealers that we are moving rapidly to provide a solution for your existing customers.”

Toyota on Sunday morning began airing spots on U.S. television saying that the company is “working around the clock” to build the highest-quality vehicles and to restore the faith of its customers.

“In recent days, our company hasn’t been living up to the standards that you’ve come to expect from us,” an unidentified announcer said in a voiceover.

Mr. Carter said in the e-mail that the 60-second ads will remind viewers of Toyota’s 50-plus years of building safe, reliable vehicles in the United States. The ads will air in prime time and on local, national and cable news shows, but will not appear on the Super Bowl, Mr. Carter wrote.

Toyota’s response to the safety issues has drawn the attention of U.S. politicians. The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has summoned Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Toyota Motor North America Chairman and CEO Yoshi Inaba to a hearing on Wednesday. A key committee member has asked that transportation officials who served under former President George W. Bush also appear.

Besides a full-fledged safety recall, the company simply could ask owners to bring in their vehicles for repairs, since the brakes are not failing completely. The Yomiuri newspaper, however, said that Toyota decided on the more serious step of a recall for the Prius to give priority to restoring consumer trust.

Toyota has acknowledged receiving dozens of complaints about the Prius in Japan, where there is high-level government concern about Toyota’s quality problems. Cabinet ministers have expressed alarm and urged the company to move more quickly to ease consumer worries.

Media criticism of Toyota has intensified since a news conference on Friday by Toyota President Akio Toyoda in which he offered an apology for the defects but few details about what the automaker would do about the Prius.

The reports said the new Prius model was released in May, and more than 300,000 have been sold in about 60 countries and territories.

Associated Press writers Yuri Kageyama and Jay Alabaster in Tokyo, Ken Thomas in Washington, and AP auto writers Dee-Ann Durbin and Tom Krisher in Detroit contributed to this report.

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