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Toyota may recall Corollas over steering problems; U.S. to launch probe

Adding to its growing woes, Toyota Motor Corp. said it was considering recalling the popular Corolla because of potential steering problems.

The possibility arose during a news conference in Tokyo on Wednesday, where company executives also said that all future Toyota vehicles would include a brake-override system to provide an extra measure of safety in the event of sudden acceleration.

Toyota has issued about 10 million recall notices worldwide, mostly for floor mats that can entrap the gas pedal and for a gas pedal that can stick, which it has blamed for causing unintended acceleration.

Although the Corolla has a different problem, it would add to the company’s deep business and public relations woes, as well as increase concern by U.S. officials about the safety of Toyota vehicles and the responsiveness of company executives to consumer complaints.

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Separately, U.S. officials plan to inform the automaker as early as Thursday that they are launching an investigation into steering problems with 2009 and 2010 Corollas amid complaints from some drivers that they were having trouble controlling their vehicles.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it had received about 150 complaints about the vehicle’s steering system.

The NHTSA investigation would involve 363,000 Corolla vehicles from the 2009 model year and 136,000 from 2010, according to a person with knowledge of the situation, who did not elaborate because Toyota had not been formally notified of the probe.

Shinichi Sasaki, Toyota’s executive vice president, said Toyota was waiting on information from NHTSA before it took action on the Corolla. The company is aware of fewer than 100 complaints and is trying to narrow down the causes, he said.

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In December, NHTSA began investigating whether the electronic control module in some Corolla and Matrix models could cause them to stall without warning.

The Corolla steering probe would represent the fifth open investigation of a Toyota vehicle by NHTSA, not including the documents it requested Tuesday about previous recalls.

The agency is looking into the engine-stalling issue, as well as complaints about the electronic stability control of the 2003 Sequoia, frame corrosion in the 2000 and 2001 Tundra and recent problems with Prius hybrid brakes.

Toyota sold almost 1.3 million Corollas worldwide last year, including nearly 300,000 in the United States. The Corolla trailed only Toyota’s Camry as the second-best-selling car in the U.S. last year, according to Autodata Corp.

In the past, Toyota would have fixed Corollas in a service campaign when the vehicles came into the dealerships for oil changes or other work, said Jeremy Anwyl, chief executive of auto data company Edmunds.com.

“But today, not to have a recall raises questions. It would create a perception that you don’t care about your customers or you are putting profits ahead of consumers,” Anwyl said. “It is better to have a recall than to wait for the negative backlash.”

The company already is facing a major backlash for its delay in a broad recall of vehicles for sudden-acceleration problems.

At the news conference in Tokyo, company President Akio Toyoda said he did not plan to personally address those issues on Capitol Hill -- at least not yet. He said Wednesday that he would not travel to Washington next week for congressional hearings.

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Toyoda expressed full confidence in Toyota’s North American chief, Yoshimi Inaba, who he indicated would attend a hearing Wednesday on the recalls by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. (The House Energy and Commerce Committee also plans to hold a Toyota hearing next week.)

Toyoda said Inaba had his “highest personal trust” and was “qualified to respond to the questions and concerns of congressmen.”

“We will give our full support to those at the hearings,” Toyoda said.

But that might not be enough for Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the House oversight committee. Towns did not comment on Toyoda’s announcement Wednesday. But a committee aide said a subpoena to force Toyoda to testify was an option.

The panel’s top Republican, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), had supported a subpoena last week. But he predicted Wednesday that the committee would not force Toyoda to testify. And Issa said that was more of a loss for the company than for the committee.

“Akio Toyoda doesn’t get it that he’s got plenty of good engineers to fix the problem. He needs to set the tone and fix the public’s confidence,” Issa said. “It does appear he’s missing that opportunity here and around the world.”

Also Wednesday, Towns and Issa wrote to major auto insurance companies, asking whether they had seen a series of claims over unintended-acceleration incidents involving Toyota products. The letters went to Geico, State Farm Group, Progressive Group, Allstate Insurance and Farmers Insurance Group.

Last week, State Farm Insurance said it has had numerous reports about alleged unwanted-acceleration problems in Toyota and Lexus vehicles in recent years and notified federal officials of the problem three years ago.

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State Farm notified NHTSA in late 2007 about an increase in situations involving alleged unwanted acceleration in Toyotas, said Kip Diggs, the insurer’s spokesman.

Towns and Issa want to see what correspondence and discussions the insurers might have had with NHTSA over the issue.

Federal regulators this week launched three far-reaching investigations into the timeliness and the adequacy of the company’s recalls. NHTSA demanded a massive volume of Toyota documents, including engineering reports, internal communications and customer complaints involving sudden acceleration. The agency also asked Toyota to identify employees with knowledge of unintended acceleration.

Regulators said they were examining whether Toyota acted promptly in ordering a string of safety recalls and whether the company fully considered other potential causes of sudden acceleration besides interference from floor mats and sticking gas pedals.

Sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles has been blamed for at least 34 fatalities, according to complaints filed with NHTSA. The safety agency has received more than 2,000 complaints from Toyota owners about their cars lurching and speeding unintentionally.

Toyoda said it was possible he would go to Washington at some point, but he did not mention any date.

To answer what he called a “misunderstanding in the press,” Toyoda said: “I’m not saying that I will never go to the U.S. I am adjusting my schedule to prepare for my visit . . . but can’t be specific.”

jim.puzzanghera @latimes.com

jerry.hirsch@latimes.com

Masters is a special correspondent.


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