This has been the worst year Toyota has ever had for recalls (4.8 million), but so far its reputation for quality seems to be weathering the storm. Even with the sudden acceleration issues, rust problems, deaths, and Toyota’s generally poor handling of it all, consumers so far seem to be willing to forgive. Granted, Toyota’s sales numbers are off by about 24% this year, but I think that largely mirrors the same declines most automakers are seeing, rather than some cognizance of quality problems on the part of the consumer.


Regardless of Toyota’s issues, certainly the Prius has remained a strong competitor in the US, with the 2010 Prius receiving good reviews and stomping the feet of the other hybrid players. The Honda Insight has been universally panned as a bad car—so it’s essentially DOA—and even though the only major competition, the Ford Fusion Hybrid, has received rave reviews—including one from yours truly—the Prius still outsells all the other hybrids combined.

Yet is Toyota’s Prius reputation on track to take a hit in the coming year with reports of brake failures starting to rise? If so, it could mark a major setback for a company apparently on track to use the luster of the Prius name to drive sales of a whole subset of dedicated hybrids as well as another, and potentially more disastrous, blemish on Toyota’s name.

The Braking Issue

The National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration (NHTSA) has started tracking customer complaints of brake failures and lackluster braking capabilities in the just-released 2010 Prius. To date, there have only been 33 complaints lodged, but given the nature of the problem, it seems that as the issue gets more and more coverage, owners will start to realize that what they may have attributed to personal fault is more of a mechanical problem with the car.

The issue stems from the operation of the brakes after the car hits a bump or a pothole while braking. Apparently, the transition from regenerative braking to hydraulic braking that occurs in such a situation is slow enough to be perceptible to the driver and results in a period of time after the regen shuts off and before the hydraulic braking kicks in that no braking is occurring. This has caused drivers to feel a sudden sense of acceleration and loss of control while stopping at intersections—in some cases only leaving inches between other vehicles and pedestrians.

The NHTSA investigation is only just now beginning and no recall or engineering investigation has been initiated. According to The Detroit Bureau, Toyota says that it is aware of the situation, but that it is too early to tell if the NHTSA will deem the issue a true problem.

A New Line-Up of Hybrids

This development is coming at a time when, according to reports, Toyota is planning on taking the success of their Prius brand and bundling it into a subcompact dedicated hybrid to be revealed at the Detroit Auto Show in early January. Based on previous rumors and reports, this subcompact hybrid is likely only the start of a whole line of Toyota hybrids that use the Prius name to provide an indication of quality, stature and fuel economy.

According to The Detroit News, the subcompact hybrid is scheduled to begin construction in Japan in late 2011 with a US debut in early 2012.

It will be interesting to see how this all develops, but if Toyota is banking its future on hybrids based on the Prius, any major dent in the Prius name could spell disaster.

Image Credit: Toyota