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Toyota to Voluntarily Recall About 75,000 Prius Hybrids

The automaker says a software glitch could cause the hot-selling car to stall or shut down.

October 14, 2005|James F. Peltz | Times Staff Writer

Toyota Motor Corp. said Thursday that it planned to notify about 75,000 owners of its hot-selling Prius gasoline-electric hybrid about a potential software glitch that could cause the car to stall or shut down.

The voluntary recall is believed to be the first of a hybrid car because of problems with the gas-electric engine, and involves slightly more than half of the Priuses built in the last two years.

But Toyota and analysts said they did not expect the problem to slow sales of the Prius or hybrid vehicles in general, which have jumped as drivers seek better fuel economy in the face of soaring gasoline prices. They noted that a snafu was likely to develop as production of hybrids steadily increased.

"It is a new technology and they will be forgiven," said Jim Hossack, a consultant at research firm AutoPacific Inc. in Tustin. "This will come and go."

The software problem first came to light in May when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it was investigating complaints from Prius owners about engine stalls and shutdowns.

"We have a total of 428 complaints, but no crashes or injuries," agency spokesman Rae Tyson said. He said Toyota made the decision to contact owners to fix the problem, which involves 2004 and early 2005 models.

"We're satisfied that their remedy is going to take care of the problem," Tyson said. As a result, "we intend to close our investigation" and Toyota is "to be commended" for the voluntary recall, he said.

Although there have been two other recalls of the Prius, neither involved the hybrid-engine system. The system uses complex electronics and computer programming to make the car's separate gas engine and electric motor work together smoothly.

Tyson said this appeared to be the first recall directly related to hybrid-engine technology.

Toyota will notify Prius owners by mail that they can take the car to a dealership for free repairs, said Allison Takahashi, a spokeswoman at Toyota's Torrance-based U.S. operation.

"Most of the time it's just a warning light coming on," she said, but the gasoline portion of the gas-electric hybrid engine "occasionally" cuts off.

If there is a stall, "you still have your electric motor and your brakes and your steering, so the driver can pull over," away from traffic, Takahashi said.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has not received similar complaints from drivers of other models of hybrid vehicles, Tyson said. Honda Motor Co. and Ford Motor Co. are among the firms that also have rolled out hybrids as demand for the vehicles has increased.

Toyota does not expect the software problem -- located in what is known as an electronic control module -- to slow sales of the Prius. "Demand for vehicles that have lower emissions and high gas mileage will still continue," Takahashi said.

Ron Cogan, publisher of Green Car Journal, agreed that Prius' glitch "won't have any long-term implications for Toyota or hybrids in general."

He noted that many cars have one or more electronic control modules and that problems are not uncommon. "It was bound to happen with a hybrid at some point," he said.

Introduced in the U.S. five years ago, the Prius triggered the popularity of hybrid vehicles, especially this year as gasoline prices surged to $3 a gallon. Demand is so high that some dealerships have waiting lists.

The federal government credits the Prius with a fuel economy rating of 60 miles per gallon in city driving and 51 mpg on the highway, although automotive reviewers typically report average fuel economy of 40 to 48 mpg in everyday use. It recently was rated No. 2 in gas mileage among cars sold in the U.S., after the Honda Insight.

Toyota sold 53,991 Prius cars in 2004 and 81,042 through Sept. 30, and the automaker expects to sell 110,000 for all of 2005. New models have a base price of $21,275 but often sell for thousands of dollars more because of the strong demand.

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