By Yoko Kubota
TOKYO (Reuters) - Toyota Motor Corp <7203.T> said it would recall more than 7.4 million vehicles worldwide as a faulty power window switch was a potential fire hazard, the latest in a series of setbacks that have dented the reputation of Japan's biggest automaker.
The voluntary move is the biggest single recall since Ford pulled 8 million vehicles off the road in 1996 to replace defective ignition switches that could have caused engine fires.
Toyota has battled its way back from multiple difficulties since 2008, including a series of recalls involving more than 10 million of its vehicles in 2009-11, and crippled supply chains from last year's earthquake and tsunami in Japan and floods in Thailand. It posted its biggest quarterly operating profit in four years in April-June.
The firm regained its crown as the world's best-selling automaker in the first half year and expects to sell 9.76 million cars and light trucks globally this year, including the Daihatsu and Hino brands.
More recently, though, Toyota - and other Japanese brands - have seen sales plummet in China, the world's biggest autos market, as a result of protests in a simmering Sino-Japanese territorial dispute. Toyota said on Tuesday that its China sales fell 48.9 percent year-on-year in September.
The recall, intended to fix a malfunctioning power window switch on the driver's side, primarily affects cars in the United States, China and Europe.
Toyota's main rivals in the U.S. include Ford and General Motors Co
The recall will include some Yaris and Corolla models, with repairs taking about 40 minutes, the company said.
"The process to repair (the power window switch) is not an extensive one," spokeswoman Monika Saito said, adding that it would involve putting heat-resistant grease on the switches, or exchanging them.
Toyota declined to say how much the recall would cost, or what impact it may have on future earnings.
Koichi Sugimoto, senior analyst at BNP Paribas Securities in Tokyo, estimated the recall could cost at least 10 billion yen ($128 million).
"Of course, 7 million vehicles is a huge number, but it's probably not going to be like last time when customers in the United States avoided buying Toyota cars. This sounds like a completely different scale from then," he said.
The recall will include 2.47 million vehicles in the United States, 1.4 million in China and 1.39 million in Europe, the company said.
No accidents, injuries or deaths have been reported as a result of the problem, though there is a possibility the malfunctioning switches could emit smoke, Saito said. Toyota's U.S. news release said the problem could lead to fire if commercially available lubricants were used on the switch.
Toyota will take in for repair about 459,300 vehicles in Japan, including the Vitz model, produced between 2006 and 2008.
The firm is also recalling 650,000 vehicles in Australia and Asia, 490,000 in the Near and Middle East, 240,000 in Canada and 330,000 elsewhere, said Shino Yamada, another spokeswoman for Toyota.
The vehicles recalled outside Japan include some models of the Yaris, Vios, Corolla, Matrix, Auris, Camry, RAV4, Highlander, Tundra, Sequoia, xB and xD produced between 2005 and 2010.
The first time the problem was reported was in September 2008 in the United States, Saito said.
Shares in Toyota ended down 1.9 percent, in line with the broader Nikkei index <.N225>.
(Additional reporting by Kentaro Sugiyama; Editing by Daniel Magnowski and Ian Geoghegan)