TOKYO – Toyota Motor Corp. launched a global recall today of 437,000 hybrid vehicles, including its popular Prius hybrid, as the world's No. 1 carmaker sank deeper into a quality crisis that has battered its image, hurt sales and triggered an onslaught of lawsuits.
The recall, to address complaints that the cars' brakes momentarily slip or give way, hits Toyota and Lexus brand cars in North America and three other continents.
The safety campaign comes on the heels of a string of other international recalls totaling 8.1 million vehicles since last October. But the latest action is especially painful because it targets the gasoline-electric hybrids that turned the name Toyota into a byword for green car.
"Let me assure everyone that we will redouble our commitment to quality as a lifeline of our company," President Akio Toyoda, grandson of the company's founder, said during a press conference to announce the recall. "I apologize for causing trouble and concern for many customers over the quality and safety of Toyota vehicles."
The third-generation 2010 Prius, which went on sale last year in the United States, accounts for 397,000 of the cars recalled globally. About 139,000 are in North America.
Others called back for a fix include the Plug-in Prius, the Lexus HS250h and the Toyota Sai, a reskinned version of the Lexus HS sold under the Toyota badge only in Japan.
The Prius is the best-selling car in Japan, and Toyota's homeland leads the global recall count with some 223,000 units affected, including the Prius, HS, Sai and Prius Plug-in.
About 155,000 cars are being recalled in North America. The tally includes 139,000 Prius, 16,000 Lexus HS vehicles and 30 of the Prius Plug-ins.
The recall also affects Europe, Asia and Australia.
Toyota has put a sales stop on the Lexus HS and Sai in Japan – similar to that rolled out in the United States after last month's recall of sticking accelerator pedals. The company is also shutting down production of the HS and Sai at its Kyushu plan from Feb. 13-20 to adjust inventory.
It was not clear if the HS sales stop would apply in the United States.
The Prius will continue to be manufactured and sold, because a software upgrade to fix the break problem was introduced last month. Prius made since then aren't affected by the recall.
The fix involves upgrading the vehicle's braking software to accelerate the switch from regenerative to antilock braking. It will take dealers about 40 minutes per car, Toyota said.
Regulators in the United States and Japan have launched investigations into the Prius as complaints of slipping brakes piled up. The number of Prius complaints filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has skyrocketed since it opened its probe last week.
On Feb. 4, NHTSA tallied 124 complaints and two injuries. But a search of its online database less than a week later turned up more than 900 complaints and at least 6 injuries.
Toyoda said he has test driven the Prius and confirmed that there can be a momentary sensation of the brakes losing power when the car rides over bumpy or slippery surfaces. That is because of a time lag in switching into antilock braking mode. It can also cause increased stopping distance.
“I myself have confirmed the situation,” Toyoda said. “From the driver's point of view, you might have the sensation that the brakes are not working.”
Executive Vice President Shinichi Sasaki said the problem is not technically a defect because the car is still able to stop within legal safety guidelines. But the company decided to recall the cars already on the road and upgrade the software to restore customer trust, he said.
Toyoda, who himself often drives a Prius, said his own car had not yet been upgraded.
The recall is the latest blow to the Japanese automaker. Since last fall, it has suffered a rash of recalls worldwide to fix spurts of unwanted acceleration linked to scores of accidents and deaths.
One recall addresses floor mats that could trap the gas pedal into an open-throttle position. The other aims to fix accelerators that can be slow to return to the idle position or get stuck.
The combined recalls hit 8.1 million cars on five continents -- more vehicles than Toyota sold globally in all of 2009. The fresh hybrid recalls push that fix-it count even higher.
Sasaki said it was too soon to tell how much the hybrid recall would cost the company. Toyota said last week that the other recalls would set it back around $2 billion in the fiscal year ending March 31. Those recalls alone were seen costing up to 100,000 units in lost sales globally.
In Japan, there have reports of the recall since last week. Toyota notified U.S. dealers over the weekend that a Prius remedy plan would be announced earlier this week.
A Japanese Transportation Ministry official suggested that Toyota was waiting until this week to announce the recall so that it could coordinate a simultaneous global action.
Toyota was widely criticized last month when it recalled millions of cars in the United States with faulty accelerator pedals before having a fix. What ensued was public confusion as customers hounded dealers for a remedy that had yet to be devised.
This time, some dealers in Japan were notified in advance that the recall was coming. And Toyota was already sending them software updates before the Prius recall was announced.