Toyota investigating Corolla steering problems

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by AP

WHAS11.com

Posted on February 17, 2010 at 3:41 PM

Updated Wednesday, Feb 17 at 6:39 PM

TOKYO (AP) -- Could the Corolla be next?

Toyota Motor Corp. said Wednesday it’s looking into complaints of power steering problems with its popular compact car and is considering a recall as one option. That would be another blow to the world’s largest automaker grappling with a spate of safety lapses ranging from sticking gas pedals to braking problems.

President Akio Toyoda also said he’s not going to Washington to appear at congressional hearings next week, preferring to leave that to his U.S.-based executives while he focuses on beefing up quality controls—though he would consider attending if invited.

“We are sending the best people to the hearing, and I hope to back up the efforts from headquarters,” Toyoda told journalists at his third news conference in two weeks.

Eager to show that his company is taking consumer concerns seriously, Toyoda promised a backup safety system in all future models worldwide that will override the accelerator if the gas and brake pedals are pressed at the same time. Acceleration problems are behind the bulk of the 8.5 million vehicles recalled by the automaker since November.

But Toyota’s woes could spread.

The executive in charge of quality control, Shinichi Sasaki, said the company is examining fewer than 100 complaints about power steering in the Corolla, one of its best-selling models.

Sasaki said drivers may feel as though they were losing control over the steering, but it was unclear why. He mentioned problems with the braking system or tires as possible underlying causes of the steering problem. U.S. officials are also investigating the complaints.

He stressed that the company’s internal investigation was still preliminary and no decision had been made, but that the company was prepared to supply fixes—including a recall as one possibility—if it find defects.

The company is putting customers first in a renewed effort to salvage its reputation and will do whatever is necessary, Sasaki said. Toyota sold nearly 1.3 million Corolla cars worldwide last year.

The step suggests the company is responding more quickly than earlier, said Ryoichi Saito, auto analyst at Mizuho Investors Securities Co. Ltd.

“The company’s announcement of the probe before a recall is a big positive step for Toyota,” Saito said. “It really shows the company has already learned a lesson from the recall debacle by announcing every probe very quickly.”

Analysts had mixed views about Toyoda’s reluctance to show up at Congress—some critical but others saying it was OK.

Toyota’s top North American chief, Yoshi Inaba, will likely face a grilling next week from U.S. lawmakers over safety lapses. Inaba has little involvement in design and engineering issues handled by its headquarters in Japan.

“They want to talk to the really top guy at Toyota,” said Koji Endo, managing director at Advanced Research Japan. “I also think Akio-san should be a little bit more proactive and should go to D.C. with Inaba-san.”

Unlike Western chief executives, Japanese presidents are not always expected to be an authoritative figure and plays more of a team leader role in a culture that values harmony and consensus. That role is even more pronounced for Toyoda, the grandson of the company’s founder.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and NHTSA Administrator David Strickland also are expected to testify at a Feb. 24 hearing by the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Toyota’s gas pedal problems and one by the House Energy and Commerce Committee the next day. The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee plans a March 2 hearing.

Toyoda does plan a U.S. visit, mainly to speak with American workers and dealers, but he said details of his trip are not yet finalized.

Toyoda also acknowledged his company had grown too quickly globally, and the measures in place in Japan to check on defect reports hadn’t been enough to deal with “the scale” of America.

But he stressed again that he and his company have nothing to hide.

“We are not covering up anything, and we are not running away from anything,” Toyoda said.

The automaker said it was also dealing with questions about whether the gas pedal flaw was electronic and reiterated its investigation has not found any electronic problems.

But it has commissioned an independent research organization to test its electronic throttle system, and will release the findings as they become available.

Scrutiny of Toyota is growing. The U.S. Transportation Department has demanded Toyota hand over documents related to its massive recalls. The department wants to know how long the automaker knew of safety defects before taking action.

Reports of deaths in the U.S. 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 U.S. government.

Toyota told NHTSA in January that the problem appeared in Europe beginning in December 2008. Toyota has said it began fixes on that in August 2009, but the company failed to link that with gas pedal problems in the U.S., which surfaced in October 2009.

Toyota took full-page ads in major Japanese newspapers Wednesday to apologize for the recalls in Japan, which affect the flagship Prius hybrid and two other hybrid models.

“We apologize from the bottom of our hearts for the great inconvenience and worries that we have caused you all,” the black-and-white ads say.

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