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Feb 5, 2010 10:36 AM by Bea Karnes, News First 5

Toyota's chief apologizes for global recalls

Toyota's president apologized Friday for the massive global recalls over sticking gas pedals as the automaker scrambles to repair a damaged reputation and sliding sales.

But Akio Toyoda, appointed to the top job at Toyota Motor Corp. last June, said the company is still deciding what steps to take to fix brake problems in the popular Prius gas-electric hybrid.

Speaking at a hastily announced news conference that lasted an hour, a stern-looking Toyoda promised to beef up quality control.

"We are facing a crisis," he said, publicly confronting the automaker's safety problems for the first time since the global recalls were announced Jan. 21.

He said the company is setting up a special committee he would head himself.

It would review internal checks, go over consumer complaints and listen to outside experts to come up with a solution to the widening quality problems.

"I offer my apologies for the worries," he said. "Many customers are wondering whether their cars are OK."

Toyoda, grandson of the automaker's founder, said the company was moving quickly on the global recalls covering 4.5 million vehicles for sticking gas pedals, about half of them in the U.S.

Dealers are scrambling to make repairs on the gas pedals, which need a new steel part to solve the sticking problem.

Toyota would fully cooperate with the investigation by U.S. federal authorities into Prius problems, Toyoda said.

There have been nearly 200 complaints in Japan and the U.S. of drivers experiencing a short delay before the brakes kick in - a problem that can be fixed with a software programming change.

The automaker has fixed the programming glitch in Prius models that went on sale since last month, but has done nothing yet on 270,000 Prius cars sold last year in Japan and the U.S. The remodeled third-generation Prius went on sale in May last year.

A less-than-perfect Prius, the vehicle of choice for Hollywood movie stars like Leonardo Dicaprio, threatens to be an even more serious blow for Toyota's image than the gas pedal recalls. The hybrid is a symbol of Toyota's technological prowess and ambitions to lead the auto industry in green, low-pollution cars.

Toyota is also investigating possible brake problems with its luxury Lexus hybrid and the Sai compact sedan, both of which use the same brake system as the Prius. Toyota has not received any complaints about the Lexus HS250h and the probe is to ensure safety, it has said. The Sai is not sold outside Japan.

Toyoda, 53, has been criticized for not coming out sooner to answer questions about the flood of quality problems that have hit Toyota.

Masaaki Sato, an auto industry expert who has written books on Toyota and its Japanese rival Honda, said Friday's public appearance was the company's last chance to keep the situation from worsening.

"He should have come out a week ago," Sato said of Toyoda during an appearance on a popular late night news program following the press conference. "After all the foot dragging, he was pushed into a corner."

Sato also criticized Toyoda for having to be prodded into action in the U.S. by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who called the Toyota president for talks.

"The issue is a huge problem in the U.S., far more serious than you might think," Sato said. "Those who are driving Toyota cars must be worried, and as Toyota CEO he has a responsibility to address their concerns and provide an explanation to the U.S. government."

Shinichi Sasaki, executive vice president overseeing quality control, told the news conference he was grateful that LaHood had pressed Toyota to go ahead quickly with the gas pedal recalls in the U.S.

Toyota did not have a fix for the problem at the time, and it is relatively unusual to announce a recall without a plan for a remedy. Toyota did not come out with a fix for more than a week, further frustrating customers. It also suspended sales and production on eight models in the U.S.

"It would have become even harder to win back the trust of customers, and the damage to the Toyota brand would have been greater," Sasaki said solemnly. "It was hard but in hindsight I am grateful to Mr. LaHood."

U.S. officials have blessed Toyota's solution to the gas pedal problem, a small piece of steel designed to eliminate excess friction in the pedal mechanism, but have criticized Toyota for being too slow in responding to customer complaints.

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