US to probe Toyota Corolla steering problems

Embattled car maker Toyota and the US government are probing complaints that the popular Corolla model is difficult to steer straight, it emerged today.

The new safety scare follows worldwide recalls over brakes and sticking accelerator pedals and comes ahead of next week’s US congressional hearing about the recalls.

Shinichi Sasaki, the Toyota executive in charge of quality control, said the company was reviewing fewer than 100 complaints about power steering in the Corolla.

Toyota sold nearly 1.3 million Corollas worldwide last year, including nearly 300,000 in the US, where it trailed only the Camry as Toyota’s most popular model.

Mr Sasaki said drivers may feel as though they are losing control over the steering, but it was unclear why. He mentioned problems with the braking system or tyres as possible underlying causes. US officials are also investigating.

He stressed that the company was prepared to fix any defects it found and that executives were considering a recall as an option, although no decision had been made.

A US Transportation Department official said the agency planned to open an investigation into the reports about the Corolla.

The preliminary investigation is expected to begin today and involve an estimated 500,000 vehicles.

In Japan, Toyota president Akio Toyoda, grandson of the company’s founder, said he did not intend to appear at congressional hearings over the previous recalls in Washington next week, preferring to leave that to his US-based executives while he focuses on improving quality controls.

In an attempt to reassure car owners, Toyota Motor Corporation said it would install a back-up safety system in all future models worldwide that would override the accelerator if the accelerator and brake pedals were pressed at the same time.

Acceleration problems are behind the bulk of the 8.5 million vehicles recalled by the car maker since November.

The company said it was placing ads in US newspapers today, featuring an open letter from Jim Lentz, president of Toyota Motor Sales USA, seeking to answer concerns over quality issues.

“History shows that great companies learn from their mistakes. That’s why all 172,000 people working for Toyota and our dealers are doing more than ever to make things right for our customers today and for the future,” it says.

The emergence of potential steering problems with the Corolla presented another roadblock in the car maker’s efforts to repair its image of building safe, reliable vehicles.

Dealers across the US are fixing accelerators that can stick, floor mats that can trap pedals and questionable brakes on new Prius hybrids.

Industry experts said any power steering troubles on the Corolla were less worrisome than accelerator pedals or brakes because drivers could still steer the vehicle, even though doing so may be more difficult.

Toyota says it has received relatively few complaints about the popular Corolla, but in the US, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has received a growing number of complaints from drivers about power steering on 2009 and 2010 models.

Some Corolla drivers said they had difficulty keeping the vehicle straight, especially at higher speeds. They reported having to fight the wheel to keep the car from wandering between lanes.

Jerry Josefy, a 71-year-old retired farmer and mechanic from Grandfield, Oklahoma, said he noticed problems with the steering on his 2009 Corolla when he drove it home after buying it.

He took it back to the dealer for repairs, but the steering trouble persisted. Mr Josefy said it still required constant attention to make sure it stays straight.

“It wants to wander all the time,” he said. “You could have a wreck with it if you don’t keep your eyes on the road.”

Smaller, less-expensive vehicles such as the 2009 and 2010 Corolla use electric-assist power steering. They are usually equipped with power steering systems that are aided by a small electric motor, a system known as electric-assist steering.

The motor essentially helps align the steering wheel with the movement of the tyres, cheaper to install than steering systems that rely on hydraulics.

But problems can arise if the motor is out of synch with the steering wheel, which could potentially cause the vehicle to wander without any turning of the wheel.

“Car companies work on it a lot,” said Jim De Clerck, a professor in the Michigan Technological University’s mechanical engineering department and a former General Motors engineer. “It is a pretty well-known customer-satisfaction issue.”

Meanwhile, the House Energy and Commerce Committee moved its scheduled hearing up to February 23, one day ahead of the Oversight Committee meeting. Toyota’s Mr Lentz and the head of the NHTSA, David Strickland, been invited to testify before the energy committee. A Senate hearing is planned for March 2.

Executives will face scrutiny in the US, where the Transportation Department has demanded documents related to its recalls. The department wants to know how long the car maker knew of safety defects before taking action.

Reports of deaths in the US connected to sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles have surged in recent weeks, with the alleged death toll reaching 34 since 2000, according to new consumer data gathered by the US government.

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