Toyota recalls more than 400,000 Priuses, other hybrid cars

By Blaine Harden and Frank Ahrens
Wednesday, February 10, 2010

TOKYO -- Toyota on Tuesday announced another global recall -- this time involving more than 400,000 Priuses and other hybrid cars with braking problems -- on the same day that the U.S. Transportation Department said it is reviewing driver complaints about hard-to-handle steering on the 2009-10 Toyota Corolla.

The one-two punch is only the latest bad news for the Japanese auto giant, which built its global reputation on reliability.

Toyota President Akio Toyoda used extraordinary language at a news conference in Tokyo to apologize for quality and safety issues that have led to the recall of more than 7 million vehicles in recent months.

He said three times that Toyota is neither failure-proof nor "omnipotent" and vowed to "redouble our commitment to quality as the lifeline of our company."

The recall will fix a software glitch in the brake systems of the Prius and other hybrid models that apparently has caused brief and sometimes frightening delays in perceived braking capacity on icy or bumpy roads.

The fix, which dealers can make in about 40 minutes, will apply to 223,000 hybrids sold in Japan, along with 133,000 Prius cars and 14,500 Lexus HS 250h vehicles in the United States. Nearly 53,000 Priuses are also being recalled in Europe. The recall will begin in Japan on Wednesday and in the United States "as soon as possible," the company said.

At the same time, Toyota is facing increasing skepticism from U.S. lawmakers that its 2009 recall -- 3.8 million vehicles for floor mats that can "entrap" gas pedals -- has been effective.

"There appears to be a growing body of evidence that neither Toyota nor [the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] have identified all the causes of sudden unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles," said an internal memo generated by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which has scheduled a Feb. 24 hearing on the floor mat issue. "Moreover, there is substantial evidence that remedies such as redesigned floor mats have failed to solve the problem."

On the Corolla, 2009's fifth-best-selling car, the NHTSA is looking into more than 80 complaints that the vehicle can veer left or right at highway speeds.

"I purchased [a] 2010 Toyota Corolla in November of 2009, and since then I am having [a] problem with the steering wheel," one driver wrote to the agency. "I can not keep the vehicle driving straight on the freeway. I think it is very dangerous."

The Transportation Department has not begun a formal investigation of the Corolla steering, as it did last week with the Prius brakes. Instead, the agency is reviewing the Corolla complaints "as we do with all complaints," said spokeswoman Olivia Alair.

Also Tuesday, car-sharing firm Zipcar said it has pulled the recalled Prius from its fleet. Priuses make up fewer than 1 percent of all Zipcars, the company said.

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