WASHINGTON – Americans should park their recalled Toyotas unless driving to dealers for accelerator repairs, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood warned Wednesday – then quickly took it back – as skepticism of company fixes grew and the government’s probe expanded to other models in the U.S. and Japan. Questions now are being raised about the brakes on Toyota’s marquee Prius hybrid.
The Prius was not part of the most recent recall, but Japan’s transport ministry ordered the company to investigate complaints of brake problems with the hybrid. LaHood said his department, too, was looking into brake problems. About 100 complaints over Prius brakes have been filed in the U.S. and Japan.
Harried dealers began receiving parts to repair defective gas pedals in millions of vehicles and said they’d be extending their hours deep into the night to try to catch up. Toyota said that would solve the problem – which it said was extremely rare – of cars unaccountably accelerating.
At a congressional hearing, LaHood said his advice to an owner of a recalled Toyota would be to "stop driving it. Take it to a Toyota dealer because they believe they have a fix for it." His comments prompted new questions and rattled Toyota stockholders, causing shares to plunge 8 percent before they recovered, declining 6 percent for the day.
LaHood later told reporters, "What I said in there was obviously a misstatement. What I meant to say … was if you own one of these cars or if you’re in doubt, take it to the dealer and they’re going to fix it."
Adding to Toyota’s woes, LaHood said his department had received new complaints about electronics and would undertake a broad review, looking beyond Toyota vehicles, into whether automobile engines could be disrupted by electromagnetic interference caused by power lines or other sources. Toyota has said it investigated for electronic problems and failed to find a single case pointing that direction.
Toyota Motor Corp., in a statement, said if owners were experiencing problems with the accelerator pedal "please contact your dealer without delay. If you are not experiencing any issues with your pedal, we are confident that your vehicle is safe to drive."
In Southern Nevada, Findlay Toyota received parts needed to make the repair starting Wednesday and has been scheduling service for the many callers, said general manager Rich Abajian. The job takes about 15 minutes, he said.
"We haven’t had one complaint from one customer on any of these issues," Abajian said. "This is definitely an opportunity for us to re-engage with our customers and treat them like kings."
He was unhappy about reports that other automakers were trying to lure away Toyota owners with incentives but said customers were staying loyal.
During the last four days, Findlay Toyota has sold 35 new vehicles, about average for this time of year, he said.
Findlay Automotive Group also sells new GM vehicles, but Chief Financial Officer Tyler Corder said he has noticed no changes in sales related to GM incentives for Toyota vehicle trade-ins.
Abajian questioned the motivation of the federal government, noting that it has made loans to General Motors and Chrysler. "Their involvement in GM and Chrysler make you wonder if that’s a conflict of interest," he said.
General managers at three other local Toyota dealers didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The fresh developments came as the world’s No. 1 automaker dealt with new probes in the U.S. and Japan over the Prius, the best-selling gas-electric hybrid, and growing interest from congressional and other government investigators. Toyota has shut down several new vehicle assembly lines and is rushing parts to dealers to fix problems with the accelerators, trying to preserve a reputation of building safe, durable vehicles.
Since October, Toyota first recalled about 5 million vehicles over problems with floor mats trapping gas pedals and now, in a recall announced Jan. 21, some 2.3 million vehicles amid concerns that gas pedals could become stuck or slow to return to the idle position. The latest recall involves 2009-10 RAV4 crossovers, 2009-10 Corollas, 2009-10 Matrix hatchbacks, 2005-10 Avalons, 2007-10 Camrys, 2010 Highlander crossovers, 2007-10 Tundra pickups and 2008-10 Sequoia SUVs.
Lawmakers who are now digging into the recalls said they would also look into the Prius. Rep. Bart Stupak, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce investigative subcommittee, said his panel would request a briefing from Toyota officials about the hybrid.
New York Rep. Edolphus Towns, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, sought more information about the acceleration issue from Yoshi Inaba, chairman and CEO of Toyota Motor North America and asked the question on the minds of Toyota owners: "Is it safe to drive the Toyota models that have been recalled?"
Towns’ committee, which is planning a Feb. 10 hearing, also wants more details on how Toyota handled complaints about pedal entrapment, reports of stuck accelerators and electrical problems. Other panels in the House and Senate also are planning hearings.
Review-Journal writer John G. Edwards contributed to this report.