Toyota Motor's quality and customer service operations chief Shinichi Sasaki on Tuesday apologised to customers for a massive recall that could reach up to 4.45m vehicles worldwide over potentially defective accelerator pedals.

But he defended the widely criticised delay in Toyota's response to address the problems as a result of the company putting its customers first.

While the automaker had been mostly quiet about the impact of the extensive recall, Sasaki admitted Toyota was ''very concerned'' about meeting its recently announced global sales target for 2010 with its reputation for quality deeply tarnished by a spate of safety issues, Kyodo News said.

''We sincerely apologise for causing concern to our Toyota customers worldwide,'' Sasaki said at a news conference in Nagoya.

''We put priority on notifying our customers as quickly as possible even if it resulted in confusion among our dealers and the frontline of our production,'' he said.

He said orders for Toyota vehicles had fallen since the recalls were announced and speculated monthly sales may initially fall more than 20%, based on examples from previous recalls which were smaller in size.

On Monday, Toyota announced a remedy for potentially defective accelerator pedals and said it would begin repairs in the United States, Canada and Europe. The recall was first announced in the United States on 21 January and followed an earlier US-specific recall, for a separate vehicle list, to address possible floor mat hindrance of accelerator pedals.

Reuters said some 8.1m Toyota vehicles are now being recalled, more than the automaker's total group sales last year.

Although Toyota says the occurance of problems is rare, public confidence has been shaken by coverage of the saga, including the harrowing details of the crash of a Lexus blamed on unexpected acceleration that killed an off-duty California state-trooper and three members of his family last summer in an event in which incorrect floormats were alleged to have played a part. There were also signs the driver did not understand the need to press the stop/start button in the car for three seconds to switch off the engine or how to shift the gear selector to neutral.

The company suspended production of the more recently recalled eight models in five plants in North America but will resume outout on 8 February.

Sasaki said he did not know the impact of the recall on the company's earnings and was not considering earnings or costs when compiling a remedy after being instructed by Toyota president Akio Toyoda to put customers first.

The costs for the recall and the shutdown now look to come to roughly JPY100bn to JPY200bn ($1.1-2.2bn), two analysts estimated for Reuters.

"It's a positive that we now can grasp what the direct costs might be, but Toyota has yet to address uncertainties about indirect costs, such as litigation costs and costs of incentives to win back customers," said JP Morgan analyst Kohei Takahashi.

"The size of these indirect costs is of far greater importance" for Toyota's future, he said.

Toyota is expected to announce third fiscal quarter earnings to December on Thursday.

Sasaki, who appeared alone in front of more than 100 reporters, offered no deep bow of apology as has been seen at other 'scandal'-related media conferences in Japan, Reuters noted.

Koji Endo, director at Advanced Research Japan, told the news agency there had been a lack of communication from the top of Toyota.

"I've never seen Toyota like this. Until recently, they had a culture of reacting swiftly to problems. But the impression I get now is that PR is not functioning very properly."

Toyoda, grandson of the company's founder, has not formally addressed the public or media on the recall problems. Howver, while at a conference in Davos, Switzerland last weekend, he appeared briefly for Japanese domestic broadcaster NHK and apologised to consumers.

The company's US head, Jim Lentz, appeared on TV on Monday and also expressed his regret as part of a public relations blitz in Toyota's largest market.

Lawsuits announced on Monday in the US and Canada claimed Toyota had ignored signs of trouble with some of its top-selling models. The suits are part of what is expected to be a wave of litigation against the automaker for claims ranging from losses on car resale values to injury and death.

Analysts and dealers said it would take months for the automaker to fix all of the vehicles at risk of having an accelerator pedal stick in the open position.

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