— The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Toyota President Akio Toyoda said Thursday he will testify at a congressional hearing next week about the automaker’s massive recalls in the United States, meeting face to face with lawmakers after enduring criticism that he responded too slowly to the company’s safety crisis.

Toyoda, the grandson of the Japanese automaker’s founder, said in a statement he looks ”forward to speaking directly with Congress and the American people.”

The auto executive accepted the invitation from the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee as the government opened a fresh investigation into Corolla compacts over potential steering problems. Toyota has faced a burgeoning safety crisis over the past four months with the recall of roughly 8.5 million vehicles over questions involving gas pedals, accelerators getting jammed in floor mats and brakes on various vehicles.

Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., told Toyoda in his invitation that motorists were ”unsure as to what exactly the problem is, whether it is safe to drive their cars, or what they should do about it.” Towns and the committee’s top Republican, Rep. Darrell Issa of California, said later that Toyoda’s testimony ”will be helpful in understanding the actions Toyota is taking to ensure the safety of American drivers.”

Toyoda had said previously that he did not plan to attend a series of hearings scheduled to start on Capitol Hill next week. But he had told reporters in Japan earlier that he would consider appearing if invited.

The decision to testify came as the Transportation Department formally opened a preliminary investigation into 487,000 Toyota Corolla and Corolla Matrix compacts from the 2009-2010 model years over concerns about steering problems at highway speeds. The government has received 168 complaints and reports of 11 injuries and eight crashes on the Corolla and Matrix compacts with electric power steering.

The Corolla investigation was expected after Toyota said it was looking into complaints of power steering difficulties with the vehicle and considering a recall as one option.

Reports of deaths in the U.S. connected to sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles have surged in recent weeks, with the toll of deaths allegedly attributed to the problem reaching 34 since 2000, according to new consumer data gathered by the government.

In Japan and in the United States, Toyota Motor Corp. has been criticized for a tepid response to the recalls and the company’s top executive has been accused of being largely invisible as the recalls escalated.