New crisis for Toyota as Prius complaints soar

Crisis-hit Toyota faced fresh doubts about braking problems in its prized Prius today, with complaints ballooning to about 180 in the US and Japan.

The new blow came as the car giant sought to salvage its tattered reputation amid massive global recalls over accelerator pedal problems in eight other models.

In Washington, US transportation secretary Ray LaHood startled the public with a comment, which he later retracted, that Americans should not drive their recalled Toyotas unless on their way to dealers for accelerator repairs.

Toyota, due to report quarterly earnings later today, declined to comment on Mr LaHood’s remarks. It also said it would explain the Prius braking problems. Details were not immediately available.

Doubts about Prius brakes are growing rapidly amid Japanese media reports that Toyota has been repairing electronic problems with the brake systems in cars that went on sale from last month.

That raised the question of what was being done to fix the problems in thousands of new Prius cars already on the roads.

The new petrol-electric Prius hybrid model, which went on sale in the US and Japan in May last year, was not part of the most recent recall over accelerator pedals, numbering about 4.5 million vehicles around the world.

Japan’s transport ministry has ordered the company to investigate complaints of brake problems with the hybrid. Mr LaHood has said his department was looking into brake problems.

“We are asking Toyota to look into the matter, including possibly making a recall on the Prius,” transport minister Seiji Maehara said.

The problems with the Prius are another hammer blow to Toyota in the US – its biggest market – and an embarrassment in the car maker’s loyal home market of Japan.

Company officials had repeatedly said cars in Japan were not covered by its overseas recalls because they used Japanese supplier Denso, hinting the world’s biggest car maker was doing a better job maintaining quality control in Japan.

The Prius, the world’s best-selling hybrid vehicle, has been extremely popular in Japan because of government incentives that made green cars tax-free.

“The latest Prius troubles have really damaged Toyota’s brand. Uncertainty over the Prius troubles will only prompt more consumers to dump Toyota,” said Roichi Saito, auto analyst with Mizuho Investors Securities in Tokyo.

Toyota spokeswoman Ririko Takeuchi said today the company was aware of 77 complaints in Japan about braking problems for the Prius – just a day after the Japanese government had confirmed 14 complaints. About 100 complaints over Prius brakes have been filed in the US.

Toyota shares tumbled on the Tokyo Stock Exchange, falling 3.5% today to 3,280 yen after plunging 5.7% the previous day. Since January 21, when the US recalls were announced, the stock has lost about 22%.

In the US, harried dealers began receiving parts to repair defective accelerator pedals in millions of vehicles and said they would be extending their hours well into the night to try to catch up. Toyota said that would solve the problem – which it said was extremely rare – of cars unaccountably accelerating.

At a congressional hearing, Mr LaHood said his advice to an owner of a recalled Toyota would be to “stop driving it. Take it to a Toyota dealer because they believe they have a fix for it”.

His comments prompted new questions and rattled Toyota stockholders, causing shares to plunge 6% overnight on Wall Street.

Mr LaHood later told reporters, “What I said in there was obviously a misstatement. What I meant to say ... was if you own one of these cars or if you’re in doubt, take it to the dealer and they’re going to fix it.”

Late last year, Toyota recalled about five million vehicles over problems with floor mats trapping accelerator pedals and on January 21, recalled some 2.3 million vehicles in the US amid concerns that accelerator pedals could become stuck or be slow to return to the idle position.

The latest recall involves 2009-10 RAV4 crossovers, 2009-10 Corollas, 2009-10 Matrix hatchbacks, 2005-10 Avalons, 2007-10 Camrys, 2010 Highlander crossovers, 2007-10 Tundra pick-ups and 2008-10 Sequoia SUVs.

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