New safety scare for Toyota

Car giant Toyota has been hit by more than 100 complaints in the US and Japan about brake problems with its flagship Prius hybrid, it emerged today, in a new blow as it grapples with massive global recalls.

The Japanese company's sales have been battered in the US - Toyota's biggest market - after recalls of top-selling models to fix an accelerator pedal that can stick in the depressed position.

The new Prius petrol-electric hybrid, which went on sale in Japan and the US in May 2009, is not part of the recalls that extend to Europe and China, covering nearly 4.5 million vehicles.

The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it had received about 100 complaints involving the brakes of the new Prius model. Two involved crashes resulting in injuries.

Japan's transport ministry said today it had also received 14 complaints since July last year about brake problems with the new Prius.

The 14 complaints included an accident last July in which a Prius crashed head on into another car at a junction. Transport ministry official Masaya Ota said two people were injured.

"The Prius driver in the accident told police that a brake did not work," Mr Ota said. "Other Prius drivers also complained brakes were not so sharp."

The complaints in Japan involved the new Prius model, and the vehicles were all made in Japan, he said.

The ministry ordered Toyota, the world's number one car maker, to investigate the complaints. The other 13 cases happened from December to January 2010.

Mr Ota said the ministry had yet to receive a formal report on the complaints from Toyota.

Toyota spokeswoman Ririko Takeuchi said the company had received reports about the Prius complaints in North America and in Japan and was looking into the matter.

Toyota shares dropped 3.7% to 3,470 yen in Wednesday morning trading.

"Investors were worried the latest trouble involving the Prius could get bigger. The problem could pose a bigger question on Toyota's quality and safety," said Kazuhiro Takahashi, market analyst at Daiwa Securities SMBC.

Toyota is facing growing criticism that it has not done enough to ensure the safety of its vehicles.

US transportation secretary Ray LaHood said the US government had to alert Toyota to the seriousness of the safety issues that eventually led to the recalls.

"They should have taken it seriously from the very beginning when we first started discussing it with them," he said. "Maybe they were a little safety deaf."

Mr LaHood also said the US government was considering civil penalties for Toyota for having dragged its feet on safety concerns.

Toyota executive vice president Shinichi Sasaki acknowledged yesterday that it took prodding from NHTSA officials for the company to decide on the US recall.

Toyota has long prided itself on sterling vehicle quality and assembly line methods that empowered workers to ensure faultless production.

The latest recall, announced on January 21, over sticky accelerator pedals affects 2.3 million vehicles in the US alone.

Any serious problems emerging in the Prius, Toyota's flagship green car model, is certain to further tarnish its brand.

The Prius, now in its third generation since its 1997 introduction, is the best-selling gas-electric hybrid in the world, racking up a cumulative 1.6 million units sold so far, according to Toyota.

Hybrids, by alternating between a gasoline engine and electric motor, tend to offer better mileage in slow-speed and stop-and-go driving that is common in crowded cities.

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