Tokyo Damage to Toyota’s image is growing by the day with the automaker now considering a U.S. and Japanese recall of Prius hybrids — the vehicle that’s a symbol of its technological prowess and green car ambitions.
The beleaguered automaker faces probes of brake problems with the latest model Prius in the U.S. and Japan but remains tightlipped about adding the gas-electric hybrid to the millions of cars it has recalled. Toyota is also investigating possible brake problems with its luxury Lexus hybrid and the luxury Sai sedan, also a hybrid.
Nihon Keizai, Japan’s top business newspaper, said today that Toyota Motor Corp. would soon notify Japan’s transport ministry and the U.S. Department of Transportation of a recall of 270,000 Prius hybrids.
Toyota said it is considering a recall but no decision had been made. “Nothing has been decided on whether we will recall or not,” spokeswoman Ririko Takeuchi said.
Some owners of the 2010 Prius have reported their brakes do not always engage immediately when they press the brake pedal, or that the brakes have an inconsistent feel. The problem has been fixed with a software programming change for Prius vehicles sold in Japan and overseas since late January but not for vehicles sold before then.
The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it would assess the scope of the problem in the Prius and the safety risk to about 37,000 cars that could be affected. Toyota, however, has said it sold 103,000 of the new Prius in the U.S. since May last year.
The investigation comes as safety questions surround Toyota, which has already issued broad recalls for millions of its best-selling vehicles, including the Corolla and Camry, because of gas pedals that can become stuck.
U.S. officials have blessed Toyota’s solution to that problem, a small piece of steel designed to eliminate excess friction in the pedal mechanism, but have criticized Toyota for being too slow in responding to customer complaints.
Takeuchi said Toyota is also investigating possible brake problems with its luxury Lexus hybrid, which uses the same brake system as the Prius. Toyota has not received any complaints about the Lexus HS250h and the probe is to ensure safety, she said.
Congressional investigators expanded their review of Toyota to include the Prius as California Rep. Darrell Issa, the ranking Republican on the House Oversight Committee, asked Toyota for records on its Prius brakes.
The committee plans a hearing next week on Toyota’s recalls, the first of two in Congress this month. Issa said he would focus on whether Toyota or NHTSA failed to properly deal with safety complaints or address them quickly enough.
“We think they should have acted more aggressively or quickly,” said Issa, who owns four Priuses, none of which fall under the investigation.
Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said he and attorneys general in other states may take legal action against Toyota over possible deceptive claims to consumers about the safety of the company’s cars.
“Typically, on an issue of this magnitude and impact, we might well join forces,” Blumenthal said in an interview.