Akio Toyoda stood in front a roomful of skeptical journalists in Detroit Monday and held up a rice ball as he tried to explain Toyota's new attitude towards customers in the wake of a series of mass recalls.

The Japanese words for safety and peace of mind are very similar, he said.

And yet they are as different as the mass produced rice balls sold in a convenience store are from those made by a loving mother.

"Just like the onigiri rice ball prepared by mothers, we are going to put our heart and soul into each individual vehicle," the Japanese automaker's president said.

"Toyota vehicles are safe," he said.

The goal is to bring customers peace of mind.

Toyoda was raked over the coals by US lawmakers last year at congressional hearings investigating Toyota's failure to report the deadly defects soon enough.

In his first-ever appearance at the Detroit auto show, Toyoda was calm yet firm as reporters pressed him the mistakes which led to the recall of nearly 10 million vehicles and dented Toyota's once-stellar reputation.

More damaging perhaps than the recalls was the way in which they were handled by Toyota, which was accused of deliberately hiding the defects and was slow to react to a public outcry.

Toyota agreed last month to pay 32.4 million dollars in fines over its handling of two auto recalls, bringing total penalties levied on the firm to 48.8 million this year, but did not admit to any violation of its obligations under the US Safety Act.

Toyoda once again blamed the defects on the too-rapid growth of the company his grandfather founded 70 years ago.

He acknowledged that while much has been done to resolve the issues which led to such a colossal failure, more must still be done.

"There is no saying that the improvement of quality is done 'adequately enough' - we have introduced a very robust system which allows us to make continuous improvement," he said through an interpreter.

One of the major changes implemented at Toyota was giving US-based executives more decision-making power - particularly when dealing with responding to customer complaints and potential recalls - and improving internal communication.

Toyoda insisted however Toyota reputation has not been permanently scarred.

"From a short term perspective, as you have pointed out, Toyota did receive big damage I believe," Toyoda said.

"Despite the fact that the past year was indeed a very trying year, our US dealers left us an outstanding performance and record by achieving a number one selling car with Camry, with Toyota remaining the a number one retail brand and with Lexus number one luxury brand."

Toyoda, a race-car enthusiast, also acknowledged that the automaker's styling was a bit dull.

"We are going to come up with better looking, nicer cars," Toyoda said, before turning the microphone over to Takeshi Uchiyamada, who is in charge of Toyota's product management and research and development.

"I also agree we need to upgrade the level of exterior styling of Toyota cars so they will be more appealing for customers," Uchiyamada said.

"To that end, we are now taking several new initiatives and by introducing them to you, I hope you will be able to see how focused we are and how preoccupied we are on styling and design."

Toyoda spoke to a select group of around 30 journalists on the sidelines of the Detroit auto show after unveiled three new siblings for Toyota's popular Prius hybrid.

He was also on hand to announce the establishment of a collaborative safety research center in Michigan on Sunday.

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