TOKYO — Toyota is recalling 1.53 million Lexus, Avalon and other models, mostly in the U.S. and Japan, for brake fluid and fuel pump problems, the latest in a string of quality lapses for the world’s No. 1 automaker.
Toyota Motor Corp. said Thursday it will call back for repairs about 740,000 cars in the U.S. and 599,000 in Japan. The remainder are in Europe and other markets around the world.
Over the past year, Toyota has recalled more than 10 million cars and trucks worldwide for a variety of problems, from faulty gas pedals and floor mats that can trap accelerators, to braking problems in its Prius hybrid. In August, Toyota recalled 1.33 million Corolla sedans and Matrix hatchbacks in the U.S. and Canada because their engines may stall.
The majority of vehicles this time around need to be fixed for a problem with the brake master cylinder which could lead to weaker braking power, said spokesman Paul Nolasco in Tokyo. Some models in Japan and elsewhere — but not in North America — have an electrical problem with the fuel pump which could cause the engine to stall, he said.
No accidents have been reported from the two defects, he said.
Nolasco said the recall decision was made under Toyota’s new quality control regime instituted over the last several months in response to criticism that the company was slow in dealing with the slew of safety problems earlier this year. Changes include naming a chief quality officer to head up regional quality control teams that have more autonomy and can contribute directly to decisions on whether recalls are required.
In a letter to U.S. regulators, Toyota said it first received reports of leaking brake fluid in February 2005, finding that the fluid was different than “original Toyota fluid” placed in new vehicles. Toyota attributed the problems to the fluid and changed the rubber seals used in the brake’s master cylinders to be common with other Toyota vehicles.
From 2006-2010, Toyota said it received reports of the problem “sporadically” and found in all cases that the rubber seals had curled and the brake fluid was different than the original Toyota fluid. After receiving more consumer reports, mostly from Japan, Toyota found that certain brake fluids contained only a small amount of polymers, which could cause the seal’s lubrication to deteriorate.
More tests last summer found the amount of leakage from the brake master cylinder was “very small.” Even if the brake warning lamp went off, Toyota said the vehicle could be driven for another 185 miles before a driver noticed any difference in the brakes. If brake fluid was not added, brake performance “could begin to gradually decline.”
Toyota said even with the problem, sufficient braking force remained to stop the vehicle safely. After another 90 miles, Toyota said one of the brake circuits could stop working but because of the location of the seal, no more leakage could occur that would affect the other brake circuit.
Based on that assessment, Toyota said the condition didn’t present an “unreasonable safety risk.” But since the condition failed to comply with a Japanese regulation that prohibits leaking brake fluid, Toyota was required to conduct a recall in Japan.
“For other countries, including the U.S., although Toyota has not determined that a safety-related defect exists, in order to alleviate potential customer concerns and avoid confusion, Toyota has decided to conduct a voluntary recall campaign in the U.S. and other countries,” the automaker said.
Analysts said the recall decision, coming just two months after the Corolla and Matrix recall, seems to suggest that Toyota is trying to be more forthcoming about safety issues. American regulators hit Toyota with a $16.4 million fine for failing to promptly tell the government about its car defects.
“Toyota’s image suffered because it was slow and so it is trying to be quick with its response,” said Ryuichi Saito, auto analyst with Mizuho Investors Securities in Tokyo.
The models affected by the latest recall in the U.S. include the 2005 and 2006 Avalon, 2004 through 2006 non-hybrid Highlander and Lexus RX330, and 2006 Lexus GS300, IS250, and IS350 vehicles, the company said in a statement from its U.S. headquarters in Torrance, California.
It said a small amount of the brake fluid could slowly leak from the brake master cylinder, resulting in illumination of the brake warning lamp.
Toyota will notify owners around the world by mail to come for repairs at no charge, Nolasco said.
The models affected in Japan include the Crown, Crown Majesta, Harrier, Mark X, Alphard, Kluger, Lexus GS350, Lexus IS250, and Lexus IS350. The production date of the models ranges from May 2002 to November 2005.
Two models in Japan — the Lexus GS350 and the Crown — are affected by both problems.
In Japan, Toyota’s image has taken less of a beating. And despite the safety woes, the Prius has been Japan’s top-selling model this year.
From January through August, Toyota sold 5.6 million vehicles globally, up 13 percent from a year earlier.