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 investigation expanded to other models in the United States 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.
The newest version of the Prius has already racked up at least 140 consumer complaints to U.S. safety officials about braking and sudden acceleration, more than three times the number of complaints about all flaws in the 2009 version. Two of the complaints involved crashes that resulted in injuries.
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.
With the massive recall and an unprecedented halt in sales of several popular models, Toyota's once impeccable reputation has taken major damage.
"One thing that has probably changed forever is the idea that the Japanese have superior quality," said David E. Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. "Toyota is a great company and they'll go on, but that historic concept of superior quality is probably gone forever."
Toyota's January sales fell 16 percent, and the company estimated it lost 20,000 sales due to the recall and sales stoppage.
Toyota's dealers are extending hours, making house calls and offering other services as they try to repair the damage to Toyota's reputation. Toyota is sending the dealers a piece of steel about the size of a postage stamp that can be inserted into the accelerator mechanism and eliminate the friction that causes the problem.
Many consumer groups have questioned whether Toyota's fix will work.
Joan Claybrook, who formerly led Public Citizen, a watchdog group, noted that Toyota told owners during last year's recall to remove floor mats to keep the accelerator pedal from becoming jammed. "I don't think that's what the issue is. I think it has to be electronic when it slam dunks and takes off and goes 120 miles an hour," Claybrook said.
Most of the complaints about the newest Prius model allege the vehicle accelerated after traveling over a bump or pothole and didn't immediately respond to the brake pedal, according to a review of federal data by the Detroit Free Press. The 140 complaints link the problem to two crashes and two injuries.
The 2010 Prius has a regenerative brake system different from the ones used in previous years' models. With regenerative braking, energy from the wheels is used to recharge the car's battery.
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." Later, he 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."
Shares of Toyota plunged by more than 7 percent in the moments after LaHood's statements, an instantaneous $3 billion loss in company value. The shares closed down 6 percent on the day.
Information from the Washington Post and McClatchy Newspapers was used in this report.