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Toyota probes Corolla steering, considers recall

By KEN THOMAS and ELAINE KURTENBACH
Associated Press Writers
WASHINGTON (AP) - First it was gas pedals, then brakes. Now
Toyota and the government are looking into complaints that the
popular Corolla is difficult to steer straight, raising a new
safety concern ahead of next week's congressional hearing about the
automakers recalls.
But how worried should drivers be? Or is this an example of how
any problem at the Japanese company now gets intense scrutiny?
The executive in charge of quality control said the company is
reviewing fewer than 100 complaints about power steering in the
Corolla. Toyota sold nearly 1.3 million Corollas worldwide last
year, including nearly 300,000 in the United States, where it
trailed only Camry as Toyota's most popular model.
The executive, Shinichi Sasaki, said drivers may feel as though
they are losing control over the steering, but it was unclear why.
He mentioned problems with the braking system or tires as possible
underlying causes. U.S. officials are also investigating.
He stressed that the company was prepared to fix any defects it
finds and that executives were considering a recall as an option,
although no decision had been made.
In Japan, President Akio Toyoda said he did not intend to appear
at congressional hearings next week in Washington, preferring to
leave that to his U.S.-based executives while he focuses on
improving quality controls. Toyoda, grandson of the company's
founder, said he would consider attending if invited.
Also Wednesday, a Transportation Department official said the
agency planned to open an investigation into the reports about the
Corolla.
The preliminary investigation is expected to begin Thursday and
involve an estimated 500,000 vehicles. The official spoke on
condition of anonymity because the department had not yet notified
Toyota of the probe.
In an attempt to reassure car owners, Toyota Motor Corp. said it
would install a backup safety system in all future models worldwide
that will override the accelerator if the gas and brake pedals are
pressed at the same time. Acceleration problems are behind the bulk
of the 8.5 million vehicles recalled by the automaker since
November.
The emergence of potential steering problems with Corolla
presented another roadblock in the automaker's efforts to repair
its image of building safe, reliable vehicles. Dealers across the
U.S. are fixing accelerators that can stick, floor mats that can
trap gas pedals and questionable brakes on new Prius hybrids.
Auto industry experts said any power steering troubles on the
Corolla were less worrisome than accelerator pedals or brakes
because drivers could still steer the vehicle, even though doing so
may be more difficult.
The government investigation comes even though the automaker
said it has received relatively few complaints about the popular
compact.
Even so, in the United States, the National Highway Traffic
Safety Administration has received a growing number of complaints
from drivers about power steering on 2009 and 2010 Corollas. The
numbers are small compared to Toyota's overall sales - only about
150 reports for those two models. By comparison, there are more
than 1,000 complaints about problems with 2010 Prius brakes, a
vehicle Toyota has already recalled.
But the decision to investigate the Corolla offered further
evidence that the automaker is exposed to heightened scrutiny of
its cars and trucks.
Some Corolla drivers said they had difficulty keeping the
vehicle straight, especially at higher speeds. They reported having
to fight the wheel to keep the car from wandering between lanes.
Jerry Josefy, a 71-year-old retired farmer and mechanic from
Grandfield, Okla., said he noticed problems with the steering on
his 2009 Corolla when he drove it home after buying it last year.
He took it back to the dealer for repairs, but the steering
trouble persisted. Josefy still drives the car, but said it
requires constant attention to make sure it stays straight.
"It wants to wander all the time," he said. "You could have a
wreck with it if you don't keep your eyes on the road."
Smaller, less-expensive vehicles such as the 2009 and 2010
Corolla use electric-assist power steering. They are usually
equipped with power steering systems that are aided by a small
electric motor, a system known as electric-assist steering.
The motor essentially helps align the steering wheel with the
movement of the tires. The system is cheaper to install than
steering systems that rely on hydraulics.
Problems can arise if the motor is out of sync with the steering
wheel, which could potentially cause the vehicle to wander without
any turning of the wheel, he said.
"Car companies work on it a lot," said Jim De Clerck, a
professor in the Michigan Technological University's mechanical
engineering department and a former General Motors engineer. "It
is a pretty well-known customer-satisfaction issue."
Toyota said the steering problem could be related to the braking
system or tires. Improperly aligned tires, for example, can be a
source of steering complications, De Clerck said.
In Washington, the House Oversight and Government Reform
Committee asked several auto insurance companies for information on
whether they reported incidents of sudden acceleration in Toyota
vehicles to the NHTSA.
Meanwhile, the House Energy and Commerce Committee moved its
scheduled hearing up to Feb. 23, one day ahead of the Oversight
Committee meeting. A Senate hearing is planned for March 2.
Toyota is expected to send North America chief executive Yoshi
Inaba to the hearings. Toyoda does plan a U.S. visit, mainly to
speak with American workers and dealers, but he said details of his
trip are not yet final.
The executives will face scrutiny in the U.S., where the
Transportation Department has demanded documents related to its
recalls. The department wants to know how long the automaker knew
of safety defects before taking action.
Reports of deaths in the U.S. connected to sudden acceleration
in Toyota vehicles have surged in recent weeks, with the alleged
death toll reaching 34 since 2000, according to new consumer data
gathered by the U.S. government.
---
Kurtenbach reported from Tokyo. AP writers Stephen Manning in
Washington, and Yuri Kageyama, Mari Yamaguchi, Tomoko A. Hosaka,
Malcolm Foster, and Shino Yuasa in Tokyo contributed to this
report.

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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