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U.S. agency to probe braking problems on Toyota Prius

Last year, Toyota took the extraordinary step of suspending the manufacture and sale of some of its most popular models because of a flaw in their accelerators. Toyota executives soon were called to Capitol Hill for testimony and a probe was launched to find the cause of the problem.

In a statement Thursday, Toyota said that it will fully cooperate with the probe, and it sought to offer an explanation for what drivers say they are feeling.

"Some customers have complained of inconsistent brake feel during slow and steady application of brakes on rough or slick road surfaces when the anti-lock brake system (ABS) is activated in an effort to maintain tire traction," the company said in a statement. "The system, in normal operation, engages and disengages rapidly (many times per second) as the control system senses and reacts to tire slippage. A running production change was introduced last month, improving the ABS system's response time, as well as the system's overall sensitivity to tire slippage."

Prius owners discussed the matter in online forums on Thursday. "Prius drivers are not panicking," wrote one. "Problem is real, but momentary, braking loss."

The Prius uses an innovative system known as "regenerative braking," which converts heat energy generated by braking into electrical energy, which is pumped back into the Prius's battery. This is why the vehicle gets such high gas mileage in stop-and-go driving.

But the interface can be "tricky," said David E. Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. There is sometimes a feeling of lag in braking when the Prius switches between its electrical and hydraulic braking systems.

The new Prius braking investigation overshadowed Toyota's positive third-quarter earnings news Thursday.

Revenue soared 10.2 percent in a solid rebound from the third quarter of 2008, when the company booked a $1.8 billion loss.

Further, the company said, it expects to earn $900 million for the full year of 2010. It had been predicting a $2.2 billion loss. And Toyota raised its expectations for sales in 2010, from 7.03 million vehicles worldwide to 7.18 million.

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