DETROIT » Just when Toyota thought its safety problems were over, they flare up all over again.
Less than a year after it was tarnished by reports of runaway cars, the automaker recalled 1.5 million vehicles yesterday to address brake-fluid and fuel-pump troubles, drawing new attention to safety issues that have festered inside the company for years.
The world’s No. 1 carmaker said there were no accidents or injuries connected to the latest recall, which covers some Lexus and Toyota models from the 2004 to 2006 model years, mostly in the U.S. and Japan.
For Toyota the latest recalls hurt the company’s image just as it tries to clear up old problems, said Jean-Pierre Dube, a marketing professor at the University of Chicago.
Some previous braking and acceleration problems were blamed on driver error, he noted, but these problems were because of deterioration of parts.
"This is starting to look more like a chronic problem for them," he said. "It’s hard to imagine this can’t have some effect on how consumers are going to perceive the Toyota brand and to what extent it represents reliability."
Safety experts said it was an example of a new Toyota scrambling to clean up messes from its past. Toyota started getting reports of brake-fluid leaks in some of its models in February 2005, and it took more than five years to issue the recall.
Toyota has now recalled more than 11 million cars and trucks around the world over the past year for problems including faulty gas pedals, floor mats that can trap accelerators, braking problems and stalling engines.
Toyota took a hit on its once-impeccable reputation, not to mention its sales. This time around, it chose to recall rather than stonewall, said Clarence Ditlow, president of the Center for Auto Safety, a consumer group.
"The company is looking at all of these older defects and making a decision to do a recall, which they wouldn’t have done in their pre-sudden-acceleration mentality," he said.
While insisting that it never swept safety issues under the rug, spokesman Brian Lyons said the company is reacting far more quickly than it had in the past.
"That is part of our commitment to the federal regulators and our customers," he said.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration hit Toyota with a $16.4 million fine earlier this year for failing to promptly tell the government about defects in its cars.
The new recalls affect 740,000 cars in the U.S. and 599,000 in Japan. The rest are in Europe and elsewhere around the world. Honda Motor Co. also said it would recall an undetermined number of vehicles because of the same brake issue.
Since the safety problems hit the news last fall, Toyota’s U.S. sales have lagged behind the rest of the industry despite numerous incentives to land customers.
For the first nine months of this year, Toyota sales were up 1.4 percent. Overall U.S. auto sales increased more than 10 percent.