Don't Count Out Toyota, Ever!
This Japanese automaker's reputation will survive the recall.
A little perspective, please.
That's my gut response to the near-hysteria caused by Toyota's recalls to address concerns over unintended acceleration.
Yes, the company's recall of 6.5 million cars — 2.3 million for sticky accelerator pedals and another 4.2 million for pedal-grabbing floor mats — is the automaker's nastiest black eye in memory. Worse, unintended acceleration is the ultimate headline-grabber, one of the scariest scenarios for any driver. The specter of a runaway car worries people far more than, say, the engine sludge build-up that affected some Toyotas in recent years.
But am I the only one who sees GM's response to this issue as undignified, and the response of some Detroit media as self-serving and overblown? GM's opportunistic response was to sweeten deals for Toyota owners that would trade in for a GM model. There's a whiff of ambulance-chasing in that move, a desperation that's beneath this proud American automaker.
And to hear the nearly salivating analysis of some Detroit media cheerleaders, Toyota's misstep somehow wipes the competitive slate clean — as though Toyota's well-earned, three-decade reputation for quality is suddenly shot. Or worse, that this episode proves that, say, a Chrysler Sebring is every bit as good as a Toyota Camry.
Don't count on it. And don't mistake this as an apologia for Toyota. The company screwed up, and any consumer with an affected model should get it fixed immediately. But without minimizing the issue, we are talking 19 alleged fatalities among roughly 20 million Toyotas sold here over the last 10 years. That's roughly one death linked to the recall for every million cars Toyota has sold. That's small comfort for those victims, of course, but your lifetime odds of dying in a plane crash (1 in 6,137 flights), a lightning strike (1 in 56,439) or an earthquake (1 in 120,161) are all vastly worse than your chances of dying in a runaway Toyota.
Or, contrast Toyota's 19 deaths with the roughly 250 fatalities linked to an exponentially smaller number of Ford Explorers equipped with defective Firestone tires a decade ago. When those old-school Explorers were flipping en masse, shining a spotlight on the dangers of SUV rollovers — or when Ford pickups were spontaneously catching fire, due to a faulty-ignition-switch whose recall Ford has dragged out for more than a decade — you didn't see Toyota trying to take advantage of the situation.
Whenever Detroit screwed up (which was often) Toyota and other Japanese manufactures always refrained from piling on in public. In one way, that's just smart business: Toyota, still a foreign company despite all its made-in-America cars and domestic dealerships, doesn't want to be seen as anti-patriotic or overly aggressive.
But if Detroit wants to have a public debate on whose cars are the most reliable — whether 20 years ago, 10 years ago, or today — Toyota would be happy to oblige.
To Detroit's credit, there's no question that Ford, GM and to a lesser extent Chrysler have narrowed the once-huge quality gap between American and Japanese cars. By any statistical measure, Detroit is cranking out many top-quality models: From Fords that earn Consumer Reports' coveted "recommended" rating, to Buicks whose reliability rivals that of Lexus. But those same statistical measures show that Toyota and Lexus remain the world's most defect-free cars, period. The recall doesn't change that. And consumers, I think, are smart enough to figure it out.
The clear message from Detroit (which strikes me as wishful thinking) is that Toyota customers will walk away from the brand they've known and trusted, and buy a Big Three product instead. And in a brutally competitive industry, I guess you do whatever it takes to lure buyers into your own products.
But while Toyota's top executives have acknowledged that it needs to refocus on quality, the recall won't necessarily ding Toyota's sterling reputation in the long term.
As long as the public decides that Toyota is responding quickly and transparently to these recalls, rather than foot-dragging or evading responsibility, I can't envision any long-term exodus from the brand. Toyota sales dipped 16 percent in January, but that's partially due to Toyota halting sales to address the recall. When Toyota gets its best-selling models back on the market, those sales should balance out.
Yes, a family that has bought three Toyotas in a row, and been thoroughly satisfied, may now be a bit more likely to check out the competition. But that same family isn't going to suddenly ditch a Toyota brand that's had their back for years, and proved its worth with often bulletproof reliability.
As ever, if Detroit wants people to buy its cars and rebuild their trust, it needs to take care of its own business — and stop minding Toyota's.