WASHINGTON — Toyota plans to replace the gas pedals on 4 million vehicles in the United States because the pedals can get stuck in the floor mats and cause sudden acceleration, a flaw that led to the sixth-largest recall ever in the U.S.
The repairs are a critical step to restoring the reputation of the world's biggest automaker, which suffered a blow when the recall was announced in September after years of making safe, reliable cars and trucks.
In plans outlined Wednesday, dealers will offer to shorten the length of the gas pedals by three-fourths of an inch beginning in January as a stopgap measure while the company develops replacement pedals. New pedals will be installed by dealers on a rolling basis beginning in April, and some vehicles will get a brake override system as a precaution.
The massive recall is the largest in the U.S. for Toyota Motor Corp. The Japanese automaker had earlier told owners to remove the driver's side floor mats to keep the gas pedal from becoming jammed.
Popular vehicles such as the midsize Camry, the top-selling car in America, and the Prius, the best-selling gas-electric hybrid, are among those to be fixed. The recall also includes the luxury Lexus ES350, the vehicle involved a fiery fatal accident in California that focused public attention on the danger.
Spokesman Irv Miller said Toyota is "very, very confident that we have addressed this issue." Toyota has no reason to believe that there are problems with the cars' electronic control systems, he said. An electronic-control malfunction also could cause unintended acceleration.
Toyota officials said the floor mats are only sold in the U.S., and the recall would be limited to North America.
Toyota would not say how much the repairs would cost, but analysts expected them to be extremely expensive because of the work involved and the manufacturing of new pedals. Toyota also said it would provide newly designed replacement floor mats.
Toyota developed a sterling reliability reputation but faced challenges as it rapidly expanded. While recalls do not always indicate poor reliability, Toyota executives are concerned about large numbers of recalls and have pushed for improved quality controls.
In a separate action, Toyota announced Tuesday the recall of 110,000 Tundra trucks from the 2000-03 model years to address excessive frame rust.
"Their reputation has taken a hit because the actual quality has taken a hit," said Aaron Bragman, an automotive analyst for the consulting firm IHS Global Insight. "That's absolutely critical for Toyota to get that fixed because that's the central pillar that they've built their business on."
Bartender Fitzroy Cunningham of Homestead, Pa., near Pittsburgh, owns a 1999 Lexus that's older than the recalled vehicles. He says he trusts the company and would buy another Lexus.
"It's a reputable car company, and they aim for perfection, so (the recall) was surprising," Cunningham said.
Scott Northcutt, a dealer in Enid, Okla., said he was confident that Toyota would do the recall properly. Only a few shoppers have mentioned the issue, and he does not think it cost him any sales.
The recall involves 3.8 million vehicles, including the 2007-10 Camry, 2005-10 Avalon, 2004-09 Prius, 2005-10 Tacoma, 2007-10 Tundra, 2007-10 Lexus ES350 and 2006-10 Lexus IS250/350.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said 4.26 million vehicles would be covered, including new cars and trucks sold or manufactured since September.
The nation's largest cumulative recall occurred in several increments during the past two years and involved 14 million Ford vehicles with faulty cruise-control switches that could cause fires.
The largest single recall happened in 1996 involving 7.9 million Ford vehicles that needed new ignition switches.
The Toyota recall came about after a high-speed crash in August involving a 2009 Lexus ES350 that killed a California Highway Patrol officer and three of his family members near San Diego. The Lexus accelerated to more than 120 mph, struck a sport utility vehicle, bounced off an embankment, rolled several times and burst into flames.
In a frantic 911 call, a family member said the accelerator was stuck.
Investigators determined that a rubber all-weather floor mat found in the wreckage was slightly longer than the mat that belonged in the vehicle, and it could have snared or covered the gas pedal.
The government has attributed at least five deaths and two injuries to floor mat-related acceleration in the Toyota vehicles. Regulators have received reports of more than 100 other incidents.
A Massachusetts safety consultant who has investigated the Toyota cases has found more than 2,000 incidents with 16 deaths and 243 injuries potentially tied to gas pedals.
Toyota and the government said dealers will shorten the length of the accelerator pedal and in some cases remove foam beneath carpeting to increase space between the pedal and floor. Owners of the ES350, the Camry and the Avalon will get first notification because the vehicles are believed to be at the most risk.
Toyota also plans to install a brake override system on the Camry, Avalon and Lexus ES350, IS350 and IS250 models. The system will ensure the vehicle will stop if the gas and brakes are applied simultaneously. Toyota plans to make the system standard on new Toyota and Lexus models by the end of 2010.
The automaker and government regulators have been discussing a potential fix for several weeks. Toyota urged owners in September to remove driver's side floor mats, saying that unhooked mats or replacements stacked atop the originals could lead to stuck accelerators.
John McEleney, a dealer in Clinton, Iowa, said the recall should not damage Toyota's reputation for quality. Toyotas are more reliable and quieter than ever, and that's how most people judge quality, he said.
Recalls, he said, are inevitable when a manufacturer assembles thousands of parts to make a car or truck.
"They're such complicated machines. I think there's always going to be issues that become concerns from a safety standpoint," he said.
Tom Beck, a mechanic from Irwin, Pa., near Pittsburgh, said the recall and the possibility of sudden acceleration would not influence his decision to shop for a new Prius to replace a Honda Civic.
"I'm a mechanic," he said. "If something were to happen, I would just turn the key," Beck said.
For more information, owners can contact Toyota at 800-331-4331 or the NHTSA hot line at 888-327-4236.
On the Net:
Toyota Motor Corp.: http://www.toyota.com
Associated Press writers Yuri Kageyama and Tomoko Hosaka in Tokyo, Ramit Plushnick-Masti in Pittsburgh, David Koenig in Dallas, Mark Williams in Columbus, Ohio, and Tom Krisher in Detroit contributed to this report.