Toyota, the embattled Japanese car giant, was last night faced with more safety problems. Barely had the dust settled from the company's admission yesterday morning that it was recalling 436,000 Prius hybrids because of braking problems, when the US government's safety agency announced an investigation into steering issues with Toyota's best-selling Corolla.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration inquiry said it has received 80 complaints from drivers reporting difficulties with steering 2009 and 2010 Corollas, with many saying their cars wandered when driving on highways, making it hard to stay in lane.
The Prius problem, which affects around 8,500 British cars, surfaced after drivers complained about temporary brake failure when driving slowly over rough or icy ground. The trouble is with the anti-lock braking system (ABS) designed to prevent skidding. It is unrelated to the accelerator malfunctions and floor-mat issues already wreaking havoc with the reputation of the world's biggest car-maker.
Toyota is adamant that there is no safety issue linked to the Prius's ABS. It is a matter of an "inconsistent brake feel", rather than the actual operation of the brakes, according to the company.
Although Toyota GB said there have been no accidents relating to the problem in Europe, it has been linked with five crashes in the US. Toyota GB will be writing to all 8,500 British Prius owners to request they bring their cars in for a 40-minute software upgrade.
"We are recommending customers take their car in to get it adjusted," a spokesman for Toyota GB said. "The upgrade will improve the quality of the vehicle in terms of the feeling they have but it makes no difference to the performance of the brakes."
The latest debacle takes Toyota's recall tally to more than eight million in the last six months alone, outstripping its total sales in 2009.
The Prius problems come just days after the recall of nearly four million Toyotas of seven different makes because of fears over "sticky" accelerators. Pedals damaged by wear and tear or cold weather were in danger of either getting stuck down or only very slowly returning to the normal position. Around 180,000 British cars were affected, out of 1.7 million across Europe.
Fixing the mechanics is just the start. Although there are no confirmed cases of injury in the UK, the first claim against the company was lodged by a solicitor last week on behalf of a driver in the Midlands who is said to have suffered head injuries when his Toyota hit a wall at 30mph last September.
In the US, the situation is graver still. Congressional officials have said that up to 19 crash deaths could be linked to the pedal problem. And Toyota faces a slew of court cases, including 34 class action lawsuits seeking damages for loss of car value and at least 12 individual claims over death or injury caused by uncontrollable acceleration.
But even the sticky pedal was not an isolated case. Last September, another 5.7 million Toyotas were recalled in the US over concerns that slipping floor mats were interfering with the cars' accelerators. The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has estimated that five people may have died in crashes caused by the fault.
Akio Toyoda, Toyota's president and the grandson of its founder, issued a grovelling apology yesterday as the company fought to salvage its reputation in the aftermath of the revelations about the Prius. "I would like to take this opportunity to apologise from the bottom of my heart for causing many of our customers concern after the recalls across several models in several regions," he told a Tokyo press conference. "Let me assure everyone that we will redouble our commitment to quality as a lifeline of our company."
Even before the latest fiasco, unofficial estimates were putting a price tag of $2bn (£1.3bn) on Toyota's problems, including up to £560m in lost sales. The value of the company has already plummeted by £19bn and US sales dropped by 16 per cent in January.
But the biggest problem is the brand. Once feted as the emblem of Japanese quality and reliability, Toyota will have an uphill struggle to restore its reputation. So far, it has not risen to the challenge. "These troubles are not trivial issues for Toyota and they have to solve them rapidly," Professor Garel Rhys, an automotive industry expert, said.
"The typical Japanese consensus approach is normally fine, but when there is a crisis you want someone to come out and grab the problem by the scruff of the neck."
Toyota drivers: What to do now
The recall involves a loss, or perceived loss, of braking only on the third-generation Prius built before 27 January 2010.
On uneven or slick ground the activation of the Automatic Braking System can lead to a "sensation" that the brakes are not responding. Toyota insists that the fault is a not a safety issue and says the cars are "safe to drive" prior to the repair.
Once it has received registration details from the DVLA in the next week, the carmaker will write to owners offering them a free repair at one of its 206 UK dealerships.
Repairs could take months because higher priority is being given to the recall of 180,000 Yaris, Auris and other models which have been diagnosed with faulty accelerator pedals. Prius customers who are experiencing a problem should contact Toyota rather than waiting for the letter to arrive. This may speed the process.
The Association of British Insurers says insurance policies will "continue to cover Toyota owners affected" and will be dealt with normally. For those with questions for the company, Toyota's customer relations department can be contacted on 0800 1388 744, 8am to 8pm on weekdays.
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