Toyota to announce action soon for Prius hybrids

Laura Benin poses with her 2009 Toyota Corolla LE outside her home in the Queens borough of New York, Saturday, Feb. 6, 2010. (AP Photo/Robert Mecea)

TOKYO -- Toyota said Sunday that it will soon announce plans to deal with braking problems in its prized Prius hybrid amid reports it has decided to issue a recall for the vehicle in Japan, a possible new embarrassment for the world's biggest automaker.

Toyota Motor Corp. has already had to recall more than 7 million other cars in the U.S., Europe and China over a sticky accelerator and floor mats that can get caught in the gas pedal. Those problems and criticism of Toyota's response to them have sullied the company's reputation for quality.

Separately, 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 e-mail sent by a company executive. It was unclear whether Toyota planned a formal U.S. recall.

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

Toyota decided Saturday on a recall in Japan covering its latest Prius model, Japan's largest newspaper, the Yomiuri, reported without naming sources.

Prius drivers in Japan and the U.S. have complained of a short delay before the antilock brakes kick in -- a flaw Toyota says can be fixed with a software programming change. The brakes will work if the driver keeps pushing the pedal.

The brake problem affects about 270,000 Priuses that were sold in the U.S. and Japan starting last May. The company says it has already fixed vehicles that went on sale since last month.

Bob Carter, a Toyota group vice president, sent an e-mail message Friday night to U.S. dealers saying the automaker is working on a Prius repair plan and will disclose more details early this week. At least 100 drivers of Prius cars in the U.S. 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 e-mail. "We want to assure our dealers that we are moving rapidly to provide a solution for your existing customers."

Toyota on Sunday morning began airing spots on U.S. television saying that the company is "working around the clock" to build the highest-quality vehicles and to restore the faith of its customers.

"In recent days, our company hasn't been living up to the standards that you've come to expect from us," an unidentified announcer said in a voiceover.

Carter wrote that the ads tell viewers of Toyota's 50-plus years of building safe, reliable vehicles in the U.S. They were airing in prime time and on local, national and cable news shows, but will not appear during the Super Bowl, he wrote.

Toyota's response to the safety issues has drawn the attention of U.S. politicians. Toyota Motor North America chairman and CEO Yoshi Inaba will appear before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on Wednesday, as will Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration administrator David Strickland, the committee chairman announced Sunday.

"There appears to be growing public concern regarding which Toyota vehicles may be problematic and how people should respond," chairman Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., said in a statement. "Consumers want to know whether their cars are safe to drive and, if not, they need to know what to do about it."

A key committee member has asked that transportation officials who served under former president George W. 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 high-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 automaker 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.

Toyota plans to resume production today at U.S. factories that make the eight models recalled for sticky gas pedal systems, spokesman Brian Lyons said in an e-mail Sunday. The production halt involved the RAV4 crossover, Corolla, Matrix hatchback, Avalon, Camry, Highlander crossover, Tundra pickup and the 2008-10 Sequoia SUV.

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