WASHINGTON/DETROIT (Reuters) - The spiraling crisis at Toyota Motor Corp deepened on Tuesday as the automaker said it would recall thousands of Camry sedans as well as nearly half a million new Prius and other hybrid cars to fix steering and braking problems.
U.S. regulators also said they are reviewing dozens of complaints about potential steering problems in newer Toyota Corollas.
News of the recalls, the latest in a string of embarrassing Toyota product problems that have affected more than 8.5 million vehicles globally, came as a U.S. congressional committee postponed a hearing scheduled for Wednesday to examine the recalls and Toyota’s response to reports of safety problems with top-selling cars.
In a document sent to U.S. dealers on Tuesday and obtained by Reuters, Toyota said the 2010 Camrys equipped with a 4-cylinder engine might have a shorter-than-required power steering pressure hose in the engine compartment.
That could deplete the brake fluid, increasing the brake pedal stroke and making it more difficult and requiring more time to stop the vehicle, Toyota said.
Toyota notified the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on Tuesday of its intention to conduct a voluntary safety recall, the document showed.
Toyota ended days of speculation on Tuesday and recalled more than 400,000 hybrid models, including the latest version of its iconic Prius, to rectify a problem with the regenerative brakes that help charge the cars’ electric batteries.
Toyota President Akio Toyoda said he may travel to the United States next week to tackle criticism that his company moved too slowly on earlier recalls.
Oliver Hazimeh, a consultant with PRTM in Detroit, said he did not expect the problems with the Prius to slow the rollout of gas-saving hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles from Toyota or other automakers.
But he said it was odd that Toyota had missed the potential glitch in the third-generation vehicle since such issues tend to be worked out earlier in the process.
“It’s a product development concern,” said Hazimeh, who specializes in auto industry and electric-car development questions.
“This is not a new technology, so it’s puzzling why it was not caught.”
The latest moves follow a string of recalls over the past few months triggered initially by concerns that a loose floormat or a sticky accelerator pedal could lead to unintended acceleration.
In Japan, Transport Minister Seiji Maehara added to U.S. criticism, telling Toyoda he had hoped for swifter action.
“Recalling defective products is important, but each country needs to consider how to prevent this from becoming a diplomatic problem,” he told reporters, adding the U.S. response had been “extremely measured” so far.
The U.S. government will continue its investigation into 2010 Prius hybrids even though Toyota has recalled the model, the Transportation Department said on Tuesday.
Ratings agency Moody’s said it was reviewing Toyota’s “AA1” rating for a possible downgrade.
Toyota also faces potential litigation over 19 deaths and numerous injuries in crashes linked to the acceleration problems as well as class-action lawsuits over the brake problems with the Prius.
Shares of Toyota, which lost about a fifth of their value since late January, closed 2.4 percent higher on the New York Stock Exchange on Tuesday as the market welcomed signs that the problems were finally being addressed.
But the carmaker faces long-term fallout from the crisis, analysts said. “The wave of media and government attention will not subside quickly, with lasting damage now looking unavoidable,” said IHS Global Insight analyst Paul Newton.
Toyota is likely to lose more than 10,000 sales for both January and February, Newton projected.
The effects in the coming months will depend on how quickly Toyota can get a fix into production,” he said. “The longer-term effects from lost sales to younger buyers could be much more serious, however,” he added.
The latest model Prius is sold in some 60 countries and is a hugely important model for Toyota, which is betting on the hybrid to maintain its lead in low-emission vehicles. The Prius was Japan’s top-selling car last year, a first for a hybrid.
“Toyota has been, beyond any doubt, the top player in the hybrid car segment, and the fact that Prius and other hybrid models will be part of this massive recall significantly dents its image” and opens the door for competitors, said Suh Sung-moon, analyst at Korea Investment & Securities in Seoul.
Toyota said it was recalling a total of 437,000 units of its 2010 Prius, Sai, Prius PHV (plug-in hybrid) and Lexus HS250h hybrids globally, including 155,000 in North America, 223,000 in Japan and 53,000 in Europe.
Toyota said repairs to fix the problem would take around 40 minutes per car and that, in the meantime, pressing hard on the brake pedal would stop the vehicle.
Some owners of the third-generation Prius have complained that on bumpy roads and ice, the brakes seem to slip and the car lurches forward before the traditional brakes engage. “Let me assure everyone that we will redouble our commitment to quality as a lifeline of our company”, Toyoda told a news conference in Tokyo.
“With myself taking the lead, and by keeping to the ‘genchi genbutsu’ principle, all of us at Toyota will tackle the issue in close cooperation with dealers and suppliers together, we will do everything in our power to regain the confidence of our customers,” he said, first in Japanese, then in English.
Genchi genbutsu, meaning “go and see,” is one of the five principles in Toyota’s much-emulated management and production philosophy.
Additional reporting by Nobuhiro Kubo, Mayumi Negishi, Elaine Lies and Linda Sieg in TOKYO; Toshi Maeda in TOYOTA CITY; David Bailey and Bernie Woodall in DETROIT; Steve Gorman in LOS ANGELES; John Crawley in WASHINGTON, Jungyoun Park in SEOUL and Helen Massy-Beresford in PARIS; Writing by James B. Kelleher and Lincoln Feast; Editing by David Cowell and Matthew Lewis