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Toyota's president to testify about recalls

TOKYO — Akio Toyoda's appointment as the president of Toyota last June was full of promise. The grandson of the automaker's founder, he was expected to boost morale for the rank and file and help steer the company through a brutal slump in the auto market.

Eight months later, he is being criticized as slow and indecisive as Toyota Motor Corp. grapples with the worst crisis in its 70-year history — global recalls ballooning to 8.5 million vehicles over four months. Its reputation for high-quality, reliable cars has been tarnished.

Toyoda, 53, said Thursday that he will testify at a U.S. congressional hearing next week about the automaker's recalls in the United States.

The announcement came two days after he said he wouldn't and follows an onslaught of criticism from Western and Japanese media.

Toyoda will testify before the U.S. House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Wednesday. By issuing the invitation, the committee had essentially forced Toyoda to testify.

"I am hoping our commitment to the United States and our customers will be understood," Toyoda told reporters. He said he intends to explain steps the company is taking to improve safety, which include a special committee he is leading.

Toyoda was criticized for being absent as the recalls surfaced in the U.S. in October. He did not speak publicly on the crisis until January, when he was cornered by a Japanese TV crew at a conference in Davos, Switzerland.

Toyoda's testimony will be his first time addressing lawmakers and American consumers in the U.S. since the recalls began in October. In Japan, Toyoda is viewed as colorful and approachable. Vocal about his love for sports cars and racing, he has appeared in racing outfits and zipped around test-drive courses in prototype vehicles.

At the Tokyo Motor Show in October, Toyoda personally unveiled a two-seat super car, the Lexus LFA, which reaches up to 200 mph and costs $375,000. Toyoda played a key role in the development of the sports car, a stark departure from Toyota's usually staid lineup of family cars and trucks.

He was an active blogger until the recent crisis and pioneered efforts in the 1990s to build Toyota's brand on the Internet. In 1998, he founded an Internet retail business called Gazoo.com that sold Toyota cars, as well as plastic models, music CDs and even laundry detergent.

No stranger to the U.S., he earned his business degree at Babson College in Massachusetts after studying at Japan's prestigious Keio University. He headed Toyota's joint venture with General Motors Co., New United Motor Manufacturing, in Fremont, Calif., in the late 1990s.

Despite his experience in the U.S., Toyoda's English was jumbled and halting during his first news conference on the recalls earlier this month, and he stuck mostly to Japanese. At a second news conference, his English was stronger but he read from a prepared script.

Josephine Cooper, Toyota's group vice president for public policy and government and industry affairs, said Toyoda may bring a translator when he testifies before Congress.

"He speaks English well, but he may want the safety net of a translator to make sure that the questions are explicitly understood," Cooper said.

Toyoda will be best served delivering his remarks in English, as difficult as it may be, said Ulrike Schaede, professor of Japanese business at the University of California San Diego.

"We need to pay attention to the fact that there might be something lost in translation and give him credit for doing this, but I think he has to do it in English," Schaede said.

Toyoda will be joined by North American chief Yoshi Inaba, who speaks fluent English, and Toyota Motor Sales USA president Jim Lentz, an American.

Whether Toyoda — or the chief of any Japanese company — can deftly handle a hostile grilling by U.S. lawmakers is in doubt.

The U.S. government has opened a fresh investigation into Corolla compacts over potential steering problems. Toyota's earlier recalls have been over sticky gas pedals, floor mats that ensnare accelerators and faulty braking.

Toyoda's initial plan to send Inaba alone to the congressional hearings drew criticism from some Western-style crisis-management experts.

"This is the place where you want to have your top guy," said Paul Argenti, professor of corporate communication at Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.

"If you have a leader who isn't capable of handling global issues of this magnitude, he probably shouldn't be in the driver's seat," he said.

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