The action affects more than a dozen models produced from 2005 through 2010. The power-window switch on the driver's side didn't have grease applied evenly during production, causing friction in the switch, according to Toyota.
The automaker said it is not aware of any crashes resulting from the defect, but 161 fires have been reported in the U.S., along with hundreds of other complaints, according to the company and to documents filed by U.S. safety regulators.
Recalled in North America are the 2007-2008 Yaris, the 2007-2009 RAV4, the 2007-2009 Tundra, the 2007-2009 Camry, the 2007-2009 Camry Hybrid, the 2008-2009 Scion xD, the 2008-2009 Scion xB, the 2008-2009 Sequoia, the 2008 Highlander, the 2008 Highlander Hybrid, the 2009 Corolla and the 2009 Matrix., spanning 2.47 million vehicles.
More than 460,000 vehicles are being recalled in Japan. The models are the Vitz, Belta, Ractis, Ist, Auris and Corolla Lumion. The Yaris, Corolla, Auris, Camry and Rav-4 are being recalled in Europe, totaling 1.39 million vehicles.
The sprawling recall also applies to cars in Australia, China and elsewhere in Asia, and the Middle East.
The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began looking into window problems with two Toyota models in February after noticing a higher than normal number of complaints. Most fires caused by the window switch were minor, although a Camry was destroyed in one case. Several owners reported that they were afraid to drive their vehicles because of the threat of fires.
The recall comes at a crucial time for Toyota, which has made large market-share gains in the U.S. after seeing its position and reputation slide because of a series of recalls of 14 million vehicles over several years followed by inventory problems caused by last year's earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
Before that, Toyota had boasted a reputation for pristine quality, centered around its super-lean production methods that empowered workers to hone in on quality control. Toyota executives have acknowledged the escalating recalls were partly caused by the company's overly ambitious growth goals.
The window switch recall also highlights one of the risks of globalized car production: Automakers install the same parts on multiple models in different counties, saving money but exposing their lineups to big recalls if a part is flawed.
Through the first nine months of this year, the Toyota brand has accounted for U.S. sales of 1.6 million vehicles for parent company Toyota Motor Sales USA, a gain of almost 32 percent from the same period a year earlier. The Toyota brand's market share has jumped to 14.4 percent, from 12.5 percent, during the same period.
"While the number of recalled vehicles is staggering, it doesn't have the panicked safety concerns like the acceleration issues in 2010," said Jessica Caldwell, an analyst with auto information company Edmunds.com. "It doesn't seem like it will deal a huge blow to the company's U.S. market share. Right now, increased competition and China should pose greater threats for the company."
Toyota is suffering from a sales plunge in China where car buyers are shunning Japanese brands because of a territorial dispute over islands claimed by Japan, China and Taiwan.
Toyota dealers will inspect the switches and apply a special grease to them. In some cases the switches and circuit boards could be replaced, the company said.