Toyota poised to announce action on Prius

Toyota was preparing today to announce plans to deal with braking problems in its prized Prius hybrid amid reports it had decided to issue a recall for the vehicle in Japan.

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

Meanwhile 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 email sent by a company executive. It was unclear whether Toyota planned a formal US recall.

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

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

On Saturday Toyota decided on a recall in Japan covering its latest Prius model and has notified domestic dealers, Japan’s largest newspaper, the Yomiuri, reported.

It said Toyota would announce the move early this week after consulting 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.

Prius drivers in Japan and the US 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 is switching between brakes for the petrol 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 US and Japan starting last May. The company blames a software glitch and says it has already fixed vehicles that went on sale since last month.

Bob Carter, a Toyota group vice president, sent an email message on Friday night to US dealers saying the car maker was working on a Prius repair plan and would disclose more details early this week.

At least 100 drivers of Priuses in the US 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”, Carter said in the email.

“We want to assure our dealers that we are moving rapidly to provide a solution for your existing customers.”

Toyota began airing spots on US television yesterday saying the company was “working around the clock” to build the highest-quality vehicles and to restore the faith of its customers.

Carter said in the email that the 60-second ads would remind viewers of the Toyota’s 50-plus years of building safe, reliable vehicles in the US.

Toyota’s response to the safety issues has drawn the attention of US 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 Bush also appear.

Besides a full-fledged safety recall, the company could simply 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 top-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 car maker 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.

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