WASHINGTON -- U.S. highway safety officials will begin a formal investigation into electric power steering complaints in the Toyota Corolla, a person familiar with the plan said on Wednesday.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study will focus on vehicles from the 2009 and 2010 model years, said the person, an agency representative who didn't want to be identified before an announcement is made.
In Tokyo earlier Wednesday, the automaker's quality chief, Shinichi Sasaki, said Toyota is still assessing the complaints but may consider a Corolla recall.
“If there is any request for analysis from NHTSA, we are ready to respond right away and take actions,” Sasaki said at a news conference held to give an update on the company's recalls. “Of course, if anything is related to safety, it will result in a recall.”
An analysis by Automotive News on Feb. 9 found that the Corolla has been the subject of 83 power-steering complaints to NHTSA since April 2008. Seventy-six of those reports note that the vehicle unexpectedly veers to the left or right at 40 miles an hour and up.
Since the Automotive News report, the number of complaints has nearly doubled to 163, a review of the agency's Web site shows.
Said Toyota spokeswoman Cindy Knight: "We are aware of complaints regarding 2009 and 2010 Corolla steering systems, are investigating the issue and will cooperate fully with NHTSA's investigation."
A new blow
NHTSA reviews and analyzes cases in stages before deciding whether to begin a formal study into a potential defect. Investigations at this early stage are normally viewed as routine.
But a recall of the Corolla, the second-best selling car in the United States, would be a new blow to Toyota. The world's largest automaker is already reeling from an outbreak of quality problems that have forced it to recall 8.5 million vehicles globally since last October.
Next week the automaker will be the focus of congressional hearings, and earlier Wednesday President Akio Toyoda outlined reforms aimed at restoring the automaker's quality performance.
Corolla complainants have compared the steering problem to being buffeted by strong winds, sliding on black ice or hydroplaning. They said while straightening the car, it can overcorrect -- requiring the driver to use a tight, persistent, two-handed grip on the wheel to travel in a straight line.
Sasaki said his company was aware of fewer than 100 complaints filed with NHTSA, but that the automaker has not yet heard from NHTSA on the details of each case. He did not say what model years were affected.
From hydraulic to electric
Toyota's internal examinations suggest the complaints stem from the Corolla's shift to electric power steering from hydraulic in an earlier version. The electric power steering is more sensitive to road feedback and drivers used to hydraulic steering might not be accustomed to the feel, he said.
“When we switched from hydraulic steering to electric steering, the reaction power that is conveyed from the road surface has become sharper than in the previous model of the Corolla,” Sasaki said. “The driver feels a stronger force on the steering wheel.”
Sasaki said before word of the investigation came out that Toyota and NHTSA will work together to sift through the Corolla complaints to identify a trend. The next stage would involve getting in touch with the customers and examining the actual vehicles subject to the complaint.
Calling back the Corolla for steering problems would compound the quality problems facing the popular sedan. The 2009-2010 Corolla is already targeted in two other recalls.
Those actions include the extension of last fall's floor mat recall to fix carpets that can jam the accelerator into the open-throttle position. The Corolla was hit again by last month's accelerator recall to address pedals that can get stuck or respond slowly when letting up.
The Corolla, including its Matrix sibling, was the second-best selling car in the United States last year, with 296,874 sales. Only the Toyota Camry was more popular.