WASHINGTON --- First it was gas pedals, then brakes. Now Toyota and the government are looking into complaints that the popular Corolla is difficult to steer straight, raising a new safety concern ahead of next week's congressional hearing about the automaker's recalls.
But how worried should drivers be? Or is this an example of how any problem at the Japanese company now gets intense scrutiny?
The executive in charge of quality control said the company is reviewing fewer than 100 complaints about power steering in the Corolla. Toyota sold nearly 1.3 million Corollas worldwide last year, including nearly 300,000 in the United States, where it trailed only Camry as Toyota's most popular model.
The executive, Shinichi Sasaki, said drivers might feel as though they are losing control over the steering, but it was unclear why. He mentioned problems with the braking system or tires as possible underlying causes. U.S. officials are also investigating.
He stressed the company is prepared to fix any defects it finds and that executives are considering a recall as an option, although no decision had been made.
In Japan, President Akio Toyoda said he did not intend to appear at congressional hearings next week in Washington, preferring to leave that to his U.S.-based executives while he focuses on improving quality controls. Toyoda, grandson of the company's founder, said he would consider attending if invited.
Also Wednesday, a Transportation Department official said the agency planned to open an investigation into the reports about the Corolla. The preliminary investigation is expected to begin today and involve an estimated 500,000 vehicles. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the department had not yet notified Toyota of the probe.
In an attempt to reassure car owners, Toyota Motor Corp. said it would install a backup safety system in all future models worldwide that will override the accelerator if the gas and brake pedals are pressed at the same time. Acceleration problems are behind the bulk of the 8.5 million vehicles recalled by the automaker since November.
The emergence of potential steering problems with Corolla presented another roadblock in the automaker's efforts to repair its image of building safe, reliable vehicles. Dealers across the U.S. are fixing accelerators that can stick, floor mats that can trap gas pedals and questionable brakes on new Prius hybrids.
Auto industry experts said any power steering troubles on the Corolla are less worrisome than accelerator pedals or brakes because drivers could still steer the vehicle, even though doing so might be more difficult.
The government investigation comes even though the automaker said it has received relatively few complaints about the popular compact.