Steering concerns lead to Prius hybrid recall

New York TimesNovember 14, 2012 

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** FILE ** A Toyota Prius hybrid compact car is exhibited at the Tokyo Motor Show in Makuhari, east of Tokyo, in this Oct. 19, 2005 file photo. The Prius, which celebrates its 10th anniversary in December, 2007, was born out of a fiercely emotional battle among ambitious engineers. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi, FILE)

SHIZUO KAMBAYASHI — AP

Toyota is recalling 670,000 of its 2004-09 Prius hybrids in the United States to fix problems involving the loss of steering and the hybrid powertrain shutting down, the automaker told the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The move is part of a worldwide recall of almost 2.78 million vehicles, according to The Associated Press, which quoted Toyota officials in Japan. Only the Prius is affected in the United States. Outside the United States, the recall covers the Corolla and the Wish, a small van.

The cars are being recalled because the metal used for a steering component is not hard enough, according to a report the automaker filed Wednesday with the safety agency. The part could wear out “if the steering wheel is frequently and forcefully turned to the full left or full right position while driving at low speeds,” and that “could result in the loss of steering ability,” according to the report.

Toyota said it got its first notice of such a failure in February 2010 in Japan and began an investigation that was inconclusive. In February 2012, Toyota got its first report of steering loss in the United States. This month, the company concluded that it knew the cause and decided a recall was needed.

A second recall covers 350,000 of those same vehicles and involves replacing an electric water pump that could fail and shut down the hybrid powertrain system. But the gas engine would continue to move the vehicle, Brian Lyons, a Toyota spokesman, said in an email.

Toyota told the agency it got its first report of a water pump problem in 2009 in Japan, which resulted in changes to the pump in 2010. But pump failures continued, and it was not until this month that Toyota determined the cause of the problem – a coil wire that could be scratched, leading to corrosion and “in some cases break.”

This is the second time the automaker has experienced a cooling problem on the Prius hybrid system.

In 2010, the company conducted what it called a customer satisfaction campaign that covered 390,000 2004-07 Priuses in North America. Toyota said it would replace the coolant pump because it could malfunction and cause the hybrid system to stop working.

At the time, a Toyota spokesman said a recall was not necessary because the gasoline engine would still move the vehicle.

Lyons said in an email Wednesday that the service campaign dealt with a different problem than the new recall.

Toyota says it is not aware of any accidents in the United States related to either of the recalls Wednesday.

The company described the recalls as voluntary. But once a manufacturer is aware of a safety problem it must inform the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of its plan for a recall or face civil penalties.

In 2005, the agency investigated about 124,000 2004-05 Priuses after some owners complained the gasoline engine would stall.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration eventually found 428 complaints from owners and almost 6,700 warranty claims. But it decided to drop the investigation after Toyota said it would conduct a special service campaign to make a software change to prevent the problem.

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