The president of Japanese auto giant Toyota, under fire after the company was forced to make massive global safety recalls, on Monday apologised to consumers in China, the world’s biggest car market.
Akio Toyoda bowed in apology before hundreds of journalists assembled at a Beijing hotel, just days after he said sorry to angry US lawmakers in Washington for faulty accelerator pedals blamed for more than 30 deaths.
Toyota’s global recall of more than eight million vehicles included China, where the world’s major car makers are competing for a slice of the rapidly growing market that claimed the top spot from the United States last year.
“I would like to express my sincere apologies to Chinese customers for the impact and worries caused (by this incident),” Toyoda told reporters, his hands trembling as he read a prepared statement in Japanese.
“We have long seen China as an important market,” Toyoda said, adding he felt a personal tie to the country as the former chairman of Toyota’s Chinese operations.
Toyoda later told reporters he would not resign because he felt an obligation to reform the company, which he said may have become too focused on profits.
Toyota has recalled more than 75,000 of its RAV4 sport utility vehicles made in China over faulty accelerators.
“Toyota as an automaker thinks it is important to not cover up… and put consumer safety first,” said Toyoda, the 53-year-old grandson of the company’s founder, pledging to improve the quality of Toyota vehicles.
China’s product safety watchdog last week also warned drivers of imported Toyotas to have their
cars — including the Tundra, Camry and Corolla models — checked for possible defects.
“We hope to win back consumers’ confidence in China by handling the recall as soon as possible,” Toyoda said.
The Japanese auto giant’s sales in China surged 53 percent year on year in January, but the recalls have already dampened demand, leading Toyota to start discount sales, the Nikkei business daily said.
Ahead of the press conference, shares in Toyota fell 1.05 percent in Tokyo to 3,295 yen.
Toyoda said he flew directly to China from the United States, where he was grilled on Capitol Hill about the safety defects and apologised several times — in his Congressional testimony, before Toyota dealers and on CNN.
Toyoda vowed to take safety “to the next level” during a meeting Thursday with the head of the US Department of Transportation.
He said the floor mats involved in vehicle recalls in the US and Canada were not used in models made in China, and added new brake override systems would be installed in all new China models.
His appearance was aimed at “stabilising or boosting consumer confidence in the Toyota brand”, said Jerry Huang, a Shanghai-based analyst with the research firm CSM Worldwide.
“It is also a gesture to show the importance Toyota attaches to the China market,” he said.
Toyota has been under fire since January over a rash of defects and its delays in informing the public about them.
The company faces a number of class action lawsuits that could cost it billions of dollars in the United States, and a possible criminal investigation after a US federal grand jury subpoenaed company documents.
At least 34 deaths have been blamed on sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles, according to complaints filed with US authorities.
Toyoda, who took the company reins in June, had shunned public appearances for two weeks after the recalls started in the United States but then held three press conferences in Japan before heading overseas.
China’s auto sales surged past those in the United States in 2009 to become the world’s biggest car market, according to industry data released in January.
The China Association of Automobile Manufacturers said more than 13.64 million units were sold last year, an increase of 46.15 percent from the 9.4 million sold in 2008, Xinhua news agency reported.
Huang said Toyota needed to be sure to keep a foothold in China, where it lags far behind General Motors and Volkswagen in sales.
“Given the possible short-term setback in the North American markets, the China market is even more important to the company.”
Toyota still hopes to sell more than 800,000 vehicles in China this year, Masahiro Kato, president of Toyota’s Chinese unit, told the press conference.