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Toyota Motor Corp. doesn't buy runaway Toyota Prius story

Toyota officials on Monday said they couldn't find any evidence to support the "runaway" Toyota Prius story

By John Crawley and Steve GormanReuters / March 15, 2010

Members of the media gather around a 2008 Toyota Prius 2008. A press conference was held to demonstrate the vehicle's emergency braking capability.

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Washington/San Diego

Toyota Motor Corp said on Monday it had found no evidence to support the driver's account of a widely publicized "runaway" Prius incident in California.

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The report had threatened to overshadow Toyota's attempts to restart sales after a punishing series of recalls.

U.S. safety investigators said separately that they had yet to pinpoint any evidence to support or disprove the claim that a 2008 Prius sped out of control near San Diego a week ago.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration engineers drove the hybrid in an effort to recreate the episode reported by the driver, James Sikes, but were unable to do so, the agency said in its first statement on a hurried and high-profile analysis.

"We would caution people that our work continues and that we may never know exactly what happened with this car," NHTSA said.

Sikes, 61, had reported in a call to emergency telephone operators that his Prius was racing out of control for some 20 minutes before he could slow down the vehicle and bring it to a safe stop with coaching from a California Highway Patrol officer who pulled alongside him.

But Toyota said it had found no evidence that Sikes had been applying the brake forcefully as he had claimed and said he should have been able to stop the Prius by doing so, or by shifting into neutral or turning off the electronic power switch.

The March 8 incident came at a crucial time for Toyota.The automaker has been struggling for almost two months to reassure a jittery public it has turned a corner in dealing with safety issues that sparked a recall of 8.5 million vehicles worldwide.

Although Toyota's March U.S. sales have been up sharply because of cash rebates and zero-percent financing offers, some analysts have said the long-term commercial damage from the automaker's safety crisis remains harder to assess.

Scrutiny of the Prius, a vehicle the automaker considers its most important, has also raised the stakes for the automaker in ongoing U.S. regulatory and congressional investigations of unintended acceleration.

Toyota plans to cut output of the Prius by 10 percent starting this month due to a sales slowdown, a source with knowledge of the plans told Reuters.The 2010 Prius was the subject of a February recall for braking problems, and the 2004 to 2009 model-year Prius hybrids were included in an October recall for loose floor mats.

But the San Diego case was the first to trigger a federal examination of the Prius for unintended acceleration, something U.S. consumers have complained about in a range of other Toyota models, including its top-selling Camry.

California police have said they had no reason to doubt Sikes based on the burning brakes in his car and observations of the officer who helped him.

RELATED: Feds say they can't explain runaway Toyota Prius

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