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Toyota chief to speak in China

BEIJING, Mar 1 – The president of Toyota was to speak in China on Monday as the embattled Japanese company seeks to regain the trust of consumers in the world\’s biggest auto market after its massive safety recalls.

The auto giant said Akio Toyoda would face local and foreign press at 1000 GMT at a Beijing hotel, just days after he apologised to angry US lawmakers in Washington for faulty accelerators 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.

Toyoda\’s appearance is aimed at "stabilising or boosting consumer confidence in the Toyota brand", Jerry Huang, a Shanghai-based analyst with the research firm CSM Worldwide, told AFP.

"It is also a gesture to show the importance Toyota attaches to the China market," he 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.

Toyota has recalled more than 75,000 of its RAV4 sport utility vehicles made in China over faulty accelerator pedals.

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.

Toyoda heads to China on the heels of a trip to 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.

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Toyoda, the 53-year-old grandson of the company\’s founder, vowed to take safety "to the next level" during a meeting Thursday with the head of the US Department of Transportation.

Mamoru Kato, an auto analyst at Tokai Tokyo Research Centre, said Toyoda was right to now head to China to deliver a similar message there.

"The recalls in America have been reported a lot in China, worsening Toyota\’s brand image and fanning consumer worries there," Kato said, adding that Chinese dealers may already be reporting falling sales figures.

"The press conference is aimed at wiping out the concerns. They need to troubleshoot as China is such a big market."

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 potentially 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 last June, had shunned appearing publicly 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.

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The China Association of Automobile Manufacturers has said more than 13.64 million units were sold last year, an increase of 46.15 percent from the 9.4 million units 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 terms of sales.

"Toyota has not introduced its full product lines into China, which means it has great room for development," he said.

"Given the possible short-term setback in the North American markets, the China market is even more important to the company."

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