Struggling to keep its reputation for quality from being tarnished further, Toyota Motor Corp. on Tuesday issued a recall of 223,068 of its hybrid cars in Japan, including the latest Prius model, to fix a brake system problem.

The four models under recall are the new Prius, the luxury Lexus HS250h, the Sai compact sedan and the plug-in Prius hybrid, which all employ a similar brake system.

“We will do everything in our power to regain the confidence of our customers,” Toyota President Akio Toyoda said in English at a news conference in Tokyo. “We have decided to recall, as we regard safety for our customers as our foremost priority.”

Toyoda said the company will soon begin recalling hybrids in the United States, Europe and elsewhere, with the number expected to reach around 400,000 units.

Toyoda also plans to go to the U.S. to explain the recall, he said.

Later in the news conference, Shinichi Sasaki, Toyota’s executive vice president in charge of quality, said the Prius with a new antilock brake system will stop 0.06 second later, or 70 cm farther ahead, than a Toyota car with a conventional system if it is running at 20 kph on an icy road and if the driver steps mildly on the brake.

Sasaki also said Toyota’s hybrids apart from the four subject to the recall do not experience such problems because they employ the conventional antilock braking system.

Already under fire for its slow response to the crisis, Toyota’s official announcement of the Prius recall came a week after customer complaints about the brake system drew the media spotlight.

Since then, customers and dealers have waited with mounting worry for the company to take action.

The U.S. Congress plans to hold a hearing Wednesday on Toyota’s massive recalls.

Toyoda, who came to Tokyo from company headquarters in Toyota, Aichi Prefecture, for the news conference, apologized again for causing trouble and anxiety among customers.

“Let me assure everyone that we will redouble our commitment to quality as a lifeline of our company, with myself taking the lead and by keeping to the ‘genchi genbutsu’ (‘go and see for yourself’) principle,” he said. “We will tackle the issue with dealers and suppliers.”

Toyoda said drivers who sense that their brakes are failing can press harder on the pedal to bring the car to a stop.

The latest action comes on top of recalls of more than 4 million vehicles worldwide for sticky accelerator pedals and more than 5 million units in the United States for floor mats that can jam accelerators.

Toyota will upgrade the software for the hybrids’ antilock brake system to fix a glitch that causes temporary brake malfunctioning on icy or bumpy roads.

The work can be handled by a Toyota dealership in about 40 minutes, the company said.

Toyota will directly notify vehicle owners by phone or e-mail and begin fixing the Prius model starting Wednesday, the automaker said.

However, Toyota halted sales of the Lexus HS250h, the Sai and the plug-in Prius hybrid because software to fix the problem is not available yet. Sales are expected to resume in late February or early March, according to a transport ministry official.

The new Prius, the third version since the car’s debut in 1997, has been sold in more than 60 countries and regions. A top-selling model in Japan, the Prius has benefited from increasing demand for fuel-efficient vehicles.

Toyota has been leasing the plug-in Prius hybrid, which can be charged using a household outlet, to government and corporate clients since late last year.

Information from Kyodo added

Maehara critical

Staff report

Transport minister Seiji Maehara urged Toyota Motor Corp. President Akio Toyoda on Tuesday to give a sincere and thorough explanation to the American people over the company’s recalls when he visits the U.S.

Maehara also urged other countries not to politicize Toyota’s problems and turn them into a diplomatic issue, saying they should be dealt with “under the framework of free trade.”

“When a product has a problem, it should of course be fixed and recalling it is important,” Maehara said at a news conference. “Each country should remember that they should not let a recall issue develop into a diplomatic problem.”

He also said Toyota probably didn’t react quickly to the crisis because it had lost track of the customer’s perspective.

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