Japan Stays Loyal to Prius, Despite Toyota Quality Woes


Experts are still debating whether numerous safety recalls involving Toyota Motor (TM) vehicles will negatively impact future sales and consumer perceptions. But one thing is clear: In the company's home country, at least, devotion to Toyota brand remains strong. For the 10th month in row, the company's Prius hybrid sedan was Japan's hottest selling car, according to industry data released Thursday.

Toyota sold more than 27,000 Prius hatchback sedans in February, up nearly 500% from February a year ago, according to the Japan Automobile Dealers Association. That result came despite the recall of some 370,000 Toyota hybrid vehicles worldwide -- including nearly 200,000 Priuses in Japan -- to repair a glitch in the cars' anti-lock braking system.

Industry analysts say, however, that the sales momentum is attributable in part to a backlog of Prius deliveries in Japan, noting that vehicles sold last month were actually ordered last fall -- long before any mention of a recall. Strong demand for the Prius has forced some customers to wait, a JADA spokesman told the Wall Street Journal.

The continued popularity of the Prius isn't limited to Japan. Toyota reported Tuesday that overall U.S. vehicle sales fell 8.7% in February, largely on less demand for popular Camry and Corolla sedans. But sales of the Prius rose 10.2% to nearly 8,000 units, making it the third most popular Toyota passenger car sold in the U.S. By contrast, sales of Camry models slipped nearly 20%, while the Corolla dropped 6.1%.

It remains unclear whether the recall of the Prius and other hybrid vehicles will at some point impact Prius sales, a JADA official told AFP. The Feb. 8 recall came on the heels of two others involving more than 8 million cars worldwide for unintended acceleration, which Toyota has attributed to either "sticky" gas pedals or bulking floor mats, and blamed for more than 50 deaths in the U.S.

Despite the recall and subsequent repairs, owners of recalled vehicles have reported continued problems with sudden unintended acceleration. On Wednesday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it had identified 10 reports of the problem in Toyota cars that had already been repaired.

NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said the agency was looking into the reports and trying "to get to the bottom of the problem and to make sure Toyota is doing everything possible to make its vehicles safe."

Of the more than 2,200 complaints filed with NHTSA about Toyota vehicles that accelerate suddenly and uncontrollably, only 30% are covered under existing recalls that involve floor mats or sticky pedals, it was revealed last week in congressional hearings. Lawmakers pressed Toyota officials over whether the company's electronic throttle control system (ECTS) could be a source of the problem.

Testimony given by Toyota Motor Sales USA President and Chief Operating Officer James Lentz further opened the door to a possible electronic source of the problem. When asked whether the recalls Toyota put in place to deal with the issue would completely solve it, Lentz said, "Not totally."

Speaking a day later, however, Toyota President Akio Toyoda, grandson of the company's founder, emphatically denied that ECTS could be the culprit, refuting testimony given by Southern Illinois University professor David Gilbert who told lawmakers that he was easily able to fool the ECTS on a 2010 Toyota Tundra truck.