Toyota's own faulty specifications led to Wednesday's U.S. recall of 670,000 older Prius hybrids in the U.S. for potentially defective steering, the automaker acknowledges.
About 350,000 of the same Priuses also were recalled Wednesday for water pumps that could cause stalling.
The steering problem "is a design-related issue," says Brian Lyons, Toyota's U.S. safety spokesman.
The U.S. actions, part of global recalls for the issues of nearly 2.8 million vehicles of various models, cover all second-generation Priuses built from August 2003 to March 2009. The current Prius isn't affected.
Toyota says it has no reports of crashes. But the news is embarrassing because Prius is a symbol for the company's technical expertise.
Joel Sutherland, head of the Supply Chain Management Institute at the University of San Diego, cites "quality fade" as a likely villain. Parts built at first are spot-on, but then an automaker cuts back on inspecting the supplier's parts to save money and quality drops. "That's a huge problem."
The Wednesday recalls come just a month after Toyota recalled 2.5 million cars in the U.S. for power-window switches that could catch fire. And they are an uncomfortable reminder of Toyota's U.S. recalls beginning in 2009 of more than 5 million cars for sticky gas pedals and floor mats that could jam accelerators. Toyota acknowledged then, too, that the sticking pedal was a design issue.
A recall isn't always a lingering problem, though. "I don't necessarily see this as a negative thing," says Edmunds.com analyst Jessica Caldwell. "In terms of perception, the long-run benefits of a commitment to safety and quality will outweigh any short-term backlash."
The steering component involved in the Wednesday action, called an intermediate shaft, is supplied by two different companies. "One supplier built above-and-beyond, one (Japan-based Jtekt) built right to the specification," Lyons says.
The steering shafts can deform, causing noisy steering and in extreme situations -- such as holding the wheel completely turned -- the car can feel as if it has lost steering, Lyons says, though the steering actually continues to work.
The separate Prius recall Wednesday involves water pumps with wiring that could corrode. The pumps circulate water to cool the hybrid system and batteries. If the cooling fails, the "check engine" light comes on and, in the worst cases, the powertrain shuts down and the car stalls.
In addition to Prius, the other vehicles in Wednesday's recalls are models or versions sold overseas.
(c) Copyright 2012 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.
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