Toyota Prius brake complaints climb to about 180

TOKYO: Complaints in the U.S. and Japan about brake problems in Toyota's popular Prius hybrid have swelled to about 180, adding to the string of quality troubles for the world's biggest automaker.

The news Thursday of a significant number of new brake complaints comes as Toyota grapples with massive global recalls — linked to faulty gas pedals and floor mats that can jam accelerators — that are battering its image.

The latest 77 complaints in Japan involve the new Prius model, which went on sale in Japan and the United States in May 2009, Toyota spokeswoman Ririko Takeuchi said. The Prius was Japan's top-selling car last year.

Japan's transport ministry said Wednesday it had received 14 complaints from Prius drivers, including one involving an accident in July 2009 in which a Prius crashed head on into another car, slightly injuring two people. It wasn't clear whether there was any overlap between those 14 complaints and the 77 announced Thursday.

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says it has received about 100 complaints involving the brakes of the new Prius. Two involved crashes resulting in injuries.

Takeuchi said Toyota itself has received eight complaints in North America, including one in Canada. But she said Toyota knew of no accidents among the complaints it received in Japan and North America.

Toyota shares continued to tumble on the Tokyo Stock Exchange, falling 3.5 percent in the morning session Thursday to 3,280 yen after plunging 5.7 percent the previous day. Since Jan. 21, the day the gas pedal recall was announced, the stock has tumbled about 22 percent.

The automaker's sales are being battered in the U.S. — its biggest market — due to the recalls of top-selling models to fix a gas pedal that can stick in the depressed position.

"The latest Prius troubles have really damaged Toyota's brand. Uncertainty over the Prius trouble will only prompt more consumers to dump Toyota," said Ryoichi Saito, auto analyst at Mizuho Investors Securities Co. Ltd.

"Since the Prius is among Toyota's top-selling vehicles, its quality troubles could certainly hurt hybrid sales and Toyota's overall earnings," he said.

The Prius gas-electric hybrid is not part of the recalls involving gas pedals that extend to Europe and China, covering nearly 4.5 million vehicles.

Japan's transport ministry ordered Toyota to investigate the Prius complaints. A ministry official said Thursday the government has yet to receive a report from Toyota.

Toyota is facing growing criticism that it has not done enough to ensure the safety of its vehicles.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says federal officials had to alert Toyota to the seriousness of the safety issues that eventually led to the recalls. He said he will talk to Toyota President Akio Toyoda in the next few days.

LaHood also said the U.S. government was considering civil penalties for Toyota for having allegedly dragged its feet on safety concerns.

Toyota Executive Vice President Shinichi Sasaki acknowledged Tuesday in a Nagoya, Japan, news conference that it took prodding from NHTSA officials for the company to decide on the U.S. recall.

Toyota has long prided itself on sterling vehicle quality and assembly line methods that empowered workers to ensure faultless production.

The latest recall over sticky gas pedals affects 2.3 million vehicles in the U.S. alone.

Any serious problems emerging in the Prius, Toyota's flagship green car model, is certain to further tarnish its brand.

The Prius, now in its third generation since its 1997 introduction, is the best-selling gas-electric hybrid in the world, racking up a cumulative 1.6 million units, according to Toyota.

Hybrids, by going back and forth between a gasoline engine and electric motor, generally offer better mileage in slow-speed and stop-and-go driving that's common in crowded cities.