Last year, Toyota, whose U.S. sales and marketing operations are based in Torrance, further raised its profile when it overtook General Motors to become the world's No. 1 automaker.

However, 2009 has come like an oil slick on an icy road, forcing Toyota to swerve to deal with multiple challenges that could damage its reputation.

"I do think that Toyota's image is tarnished, but that is par for the course these days," said David E. Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.

The most recent problem came on Tuesday when the U.S. International Trade Commission said it was investigating whether Toyota infringed on hybrid car patents owned by Paice LLC.

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