Toyota gears up for mass faulty pedals fix

CHICAGO: Toyota has said it will start fixing faulty accelerator pedals this week after mass recalls dented its reputation and prompted competitors to challenge the world's top car maker and customers to launch lawsuits.

Toyota's US unit said the Japanese company had "developed and rigorously tested" a fix for accelerator pedals in faulty models and had also come up with "an effective solution" for vehicles currently in production.

"The heat's on right now to execute this plan," Jim Lentz, president of Toyota Motor USA, said in a conference call with reporters on Monday.

"We know what's causing the sticking accelerator pedals, and we know what we have to do to fix it."

Parts were on their way to US dealers, many of whom will be extending their hours in order to speed the repairs of the millions of vehicles affected by the recall.

Canadian dealers will also begin repairs this week while European dealers will receive the parts next week, Toyota said.

Production of the eight models affected will resume on February 8 at factories in the United States and Canada after a brief suspension.

US sales of those popular models will resume once dealers have had time to apply the fix to vehicles on their lots, Toyota said, adding that fixing vehicles already on the road will be the first priority.

It was not immediately clear when Toyota would begin to repair recalled vehicles in China.

Toyota pulled up to 1.8 million vehicles in Europe on Friday, the latest in a series of accelerator-related recalls that has affected more than 7.6 million Toyota cars worldwide -- nearly its entire 2009 global sales of 7.8 million vehicles.

Canadian drivers and passengers of Toyota vehicles filed a class action lawsuit Monday charging that the Japanese automaker and its supplier "knew or ought to have known of inherent design defects." It followed a similar suit launched in Louisiana Friday.

"The timing of it for them is terrible," said Rebecca Lindland, an analyst at IHS Global Insight.

Toyota's competitors already had a significant amount of momentum after making major cuts and revamping their product portfolio following the industry's worst downturn in decades, she told AFP.

And a number of competitors, including General Motors and Ford, immediately launched incentive programs to try to lure customers away.

DeutscheBank estimated that the direct cost of the recall would be in the 60 billion yen (556 million dollar) range.

But with the lawsuits looming, rental car companies expected to seek compensation for grounding their fleet, and incentive and advertising costs up to win back customers, "it is not beyond question that this could top 100 billion yen" (1.1 billion dollars) in indirect costs, analyst Kurt Sanger wrote in a research note.

After days of keeping top executives out of the spotlight, Toyota went into damage-control mode Monday by announcing a "comprehensive plan" to fix the problem.

"I want to sincerely apologize to Toyota owners," Lentz said in a video released on YouTube.

"Toyota has always prided itself on building high quality, durable cars that customers can depend on and I know that we have let you down."

The company said that in rare cases, the pedal mechanism could become worn and harder to depress, or get stuck in a partially depressed position.

Toyota engineers have developed a "spacer" to add to the pedal mechanism in order to increase the tension in a spring and reduce the risk of the pedal staying down.

They also redesigned the pedals so new vehicles will not need the spacer.

The "sticky" pedal defect follows a more serious recall: unexpected, sudden acceleration which Toyota said is caused by floor mats getting stuck under the pedal.

Toyota has come under criticism for failing to act quickly on the "sudden acceleration" problem, which US safety regulators said first came to light in 2007 and has led to 19 deaths in Toyota vehicles in the past decade. Related article: Toyota recall tests family scion's mettle

Toyota, which overtook General Motors in 2008 as the top-selling automaker, has been beset by a series of safety issues that critics say raise questions about whether it sacrificed its legendary quality to become number one.

Also on Monday, France's PSA Peugeot Citroen said it would recall 97,000 Peugeot 107s and Citroen C1s made in a Czech factory it shares with Toyota as a precautionary measure.