Reporting from Beijing — Apologizing several times and bowing twice, Toyota President Akio Toyoda spoke directly to the world's largest automotive market in a press conference here Monday to assuage fears about the safety of his company's vehicles.
"The global recall has caused a lot of worries and confusion among Chinese consumers. We want to apologize sincerely," Toyoda said before bowing in front of hundreds of Chinese journalists.
Flanked by seated Toyota executives, Toyoda stood stoically and read a prepared statement explaining that he rushed to Beijing as quickly as possible after his visit to the United States, where he spoke at a congressional hearing.
In remarks similar to those delivered in Washington, Toyoda told the Chinese media that Toyota's safety problems stemmed from a company that was expanding too fast and was now doing all it could to remedy its problems.
"Toyota thinks when something like this happens it's very important for automotive manufacturers not to hide anything and put the customers' safety first," Toyoda said.
This conflicts with the findings of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which said last week that Toyota deliberately withheld evidence in lawsuits related to safety issues.
About 8.5 million Toyota vehicles have been recalled worldwide and dozens of deaths have been blamed on problems with the company's cars. According to complaints filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, at least 56 people have died in traffic accidents in the U.S. in which sudden unintended acceleration of Toyota vehicles has been alleged.
China represents only a small fraction of the cars that have been recalled worldwide, with 75,552 RAV4 sport utility vehicles taken in late last January because of malfunctioning gas pedals. But China remains a critical market for Toyota, which must overcome its safety crisis and find new paths for growth beyond mature markets such as the U.S. and Japan, analysts say.
"He needed to go straight to the Chinese people and control the damage," said Jia Xinguang, an independent auto analyst based in Beijing. "Chinese media and consumers are paying a lot of attention to the recalls."
Toyoda said the recalls in China were not as expansive as those in the U.S. because problems here were restricted to gas pedals made by CTS Corp. The Indiana company supplied accelerators for the Chinese RAV4s.
Floor mats were not an issue as they were in North America because Chinese models were not outfitted with thick, plastic mats, Toyoda said.
"Different countries have different roads, so we need to make different cars for them," Toyoda said. "Just like the dish 'ma po' tofu [a famous Asian dish]. Although it's the same dish, it tastes different in every country. But all of our cars are made following the same quality control standards."
Toyoda also outlined plans for a global quality control committee that he would chair. The goal was to quickly assess reports from customers and deliver the information to inspection and research and development departments, he said.
Toward the end of the event, Toyoda was asked by a reporter at the China Youth Daily if he believed the U.S. congressional scrutiny was conspiratorial.
"We have 20 million customers in the U.S. and hire about 200,000 people," Toyoda responded. "To attend the hearing and talk to them face to face, I'm very thankful I was given such an opportunity."
Toyota's passenger vehicles have the second-largest market share of any auto brand in China at 7.5%, though that's nearly half the total of market leader Volkswagen, according to J.D. Power and Associates.
Vehicle sales in China grew nearly 50% last year, toppling the U.S. as the largest auto market with 13.6 million vehicles sold.
But sales have been sluggish for the Japanese giant, which has been focusing on larger cars at a time when the Chinese market has been favoring economical, fuel-efficient cars. Toyota's passenger car sales numbers grew by 14% last year. By comparison, Hyundai grew by 87%, Nissan increased 46% and Buick expanded 59%.
Despite this, Toyoda said he expects the company to reach its sales target of 800,000 vehicles, an increase of 150,000 from 2009.
"With the auto market growing so fast, we hope to top that sales figure this year," he said.
Tommy Yang in the Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.