Toyota faces new probe on Corolla steering problems

US regulators launched a preliminary investigation into reported steering problems on the Corolla sedan on Wednesday as Toyota Motor Corp faced questions from US lawmakers on whether it had ignored red flags on safety before a wave of vehicle recalls. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHT -SA) has received more than 150 complaints about possible steering problems in 2009 Corolla models, a US government official said. The agency began reviewing complaints about the Corolla models last week and on Wednesday determined the evidence warranted opening a preliminary evaluation, according to the official who asked not to be named because the plan has not been announced. The Corolla is Toyota’s second most popular model in the US market, behind the Camry.

Such preliminary investigations are a common step by NHTSA and are often closed before being upgraded to a second-step investigation or prompting a vehicle recall. Toyota spokeswoman Cindy Knight said the automaker was aware of the Corolla steering complaints that would “cooperate fully with NHTSA’s investigation.” Toyota’s quality chief, Shinichi Sasaki, said at a briefing in Tokyo on Wednesday that it was not yet clear if the problem is due to the steering, tires or another part, and that there would only be a recall if the issue was deemed to be a safety breach. “Our internal studies have shown that drivers have complained about a change in steering response versus the older Corollas possibly due to a switch from a hydraulic power steering system to an electronic one,” Sasaki said.

But the move comes at a time when Toyota and US safety regulators are under intense scrutiny for their handling of safety complaints related to unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles going back a decade. Toyota is being challenged by US lawmakers to answer the criticism that the company’s practice of tightly controlling key decisions in Japan had contributed to its deepening problems in the US market and criticism that it has not been forthcoming with safety regulators. In a move that raised the stakes for a pair of congressional hearings next week, Toyota president Akio Toyoda said he would send North America chief Yoshimi Inaba to testify instead of making an appearance himself. Toyoda, grandson of the 77-year old automaker’s founder, said he believed Inaba was the logical choice to testify.

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