Orlando Sentinel Automotive Editor Steven Cole Smith once told me of a friend he was consoling who worked in public relations at Ford when the automaker was going through a crisis. He explained to her that it was just Ford's turn in the barrel, and that someday GM would have a crisis, then Chrysler, then somebody else would have their turn in the barrel. She said "I guess, but really, when will it be Toyota's turn in the barrel? Ever?"
"Ever" is finally here. Who would have thought? After years of the mostly foreign car-loving media heralding Toyota as an example of a car company that does everything right (which of course means they could never do anything wrong), the goldilocks Japanese car company has finally admitted quality took a "back seat" in the interest of "global growth" and the media is now being forced to fess up.
Last week Toyota halted sales on eight models including the Camry, Corolla, Avalon, Tundra, Highlander, Sequoia, Rav4, and Matrix, which represented almost 60 percent of their sales in the United States last year, due to unexpected acceleration that has resulted in several fatalities on U.S. highways.
First Toyota said the unintended acceleration issue was due to accelerator-jamming floor mats when they recalled 4.3 million vehicles last October. Then they added another 1.1 million vehicles to the recall (total now 5.4 million) in January this year. Now Toyota says another 2.3 million autos need to be recalled because of "sticking accelerator pedals."
The Wall Street Journal has reported that Toyota president Akio Toyoda is now dealing with a quality backlash issue he worried the Japanese automaker would face sooner or later. And according to a Toyota spokesman as reported in the Washington Post, the automaker's expansion occurred to an extent that made it difficult to "keep an eye on the ball."
And now we find that according to Massachusetts-based safety research firm Safety Research and Strategies, Toyota vehicles have been involved in 2,274 sudden unintended acceleration incidents, causing 275 crashes and at least 18 fatalities since 1999. So this is obviously more than a recent phenomenon. Did Toyota ever really make good on the promise they made in 2006 when a Toyota Senior Manager said "We used to do quiet recalls called 'service campaigns' to deal with defects but we're not going to hide anything anymore."? We'll see.
ABC Nightline did a story on the Toyota recall on November 3, 2009 available here which asserts Toyota should have known these problems were due to more than just faulty floor mats.
Perhaps the most dramatic incident occurred last August when a California Highway Patrol Officer and three family members were killed in a 100 mph crash due to what was described in a 911 call as a stuck accelerator. Officer Mark Saylor's Lexus (he was off-duty at the time) rear-ended a Ford Explorer, jumped over a curb, plowed through a fence, hit an embankment, went airborne, then landed and rolled several times before bursting into flames.
Unfortunately, the obvious safety issue surrounding the recall as highlighted by the decade-plus fatalities that are just now coming to light isn't the only scary part. Ranking a close second is the reaction by seemingly brainwashed car-buying consumers who blindly back up the automaker at all (potentially serious) costs.
Take the example of the Chicago Lexus owner who, with his foot firmly on the break, screeched down the street with his wife and daughter before he was able to turn off the ignition and put his car in park. Although he admits the dealer's response that the problem was probably caused by misaligned floor mats was "not credible," he says he continues to drive all three of his Lexus' since he feels he knows how to react if it ever happens again. If it does, hopefully for him and the surrounding traffic and pedestrians, conditions will be just as ideal.
Or how about the example of a 65-year-old California resident who thinks the recall displays Toyota's character since he believes GM and Ford wouldn't stop selling to "get it right" like Toyota is. Little does he know Toyota didn't stop selling because they wanted to. According to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, "The reason Toyota decided to do the recall and to stop manufacturing was because we asked them to."
Of course GM and Ford would stop manufacturing if the U.S. Government asked them to! Can you imagine having this many recalls linked to this many fatalities under your belt and defying a government request related to the safety of the American driving public? The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will also have to give the nod to any proposed fix Toyota comes up with to alleviate the problem(s), which is apparently already in the works.
Toyota certainly isn't unfamiliar with massive recalls, and GM and Ford vehicles certainly aren't unfamiliar with high quality and excellent gas mileage. In 2005, Toyota recalled more cars in the U.S. - 2.38 million - than they sold in the U.S. That same year, the Chevrolet Impala beat the Toyota Camry in initial quality according to J.D. Power & Associates.
The following year (2006), Consumer Reports scored the Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan higher than the Toyota Camry. And Consumer Reports now ranks Ford's quality higher than Toyota's. The Wall Street Journal reports that the new Ford Focus is expected to get at least 40 mpg on the highway, which scores higher that the Toyota Corolla or Honda Civic, which are rated at 35 or 36 mpg on the highway.
The top consumer hybrid pick according to Edmunds.com in 2008 was the American-made Mercury Mariner SUV, not the Japanese-made Toyota Prius. Also according to Edmunds.com in their "true cost to own" survey that year, which includes considerations like vehicle cost, depreciation, fuel cost, insurance premiums, and repairs, the Chevrolet Aveo is the least costly car to own. The Aveo is currently made in South Korea, but GM announced the 2011 model will be made in Michigan (which goes against the untrue, repetitive drivel that foreign companies are building plants here and American companies are building them overseas).
I could go on and on with facts that prove that American cars don't suffer a quality gap; but rather it's the majority of the American people that suffer from a perception gap. Overall, foreign cars are not better than American cars. Yes, of course there will be case by case exceptions as it goes with any similarly-diverse industry, but overall this is a true statement.
American automakers deserve our consumer dollars for a variety of reasons including quality, safety, dependability, gas mileage, and the fact that they employ far more workers, use far more American components in their automobiles, and pay far more American taxes than their foreign competitors (explaining and proving all that would take an entirely different article, and I've already written several).
Above all, I hope Toyota fixes their problems soon after halting sales and the number Americans that crash in them on America's highways halts as well. But next, I hope that GM and Ford handsomely benefit from the justice that's been denied them for so long because of past overblown hype and praise for Toyota.
Once the public's quality perception gap between American and foreign automakers is finally eliminated, then justice can finally be served for the benefit of both American automakers and the safety of the American public.
Roger Simmermaker is the author of How Americans Can Buy American: The Power of Consumer Patriotism. He also writes "Buy American Mention of the Week" articles for his website www.howtobuyamerican.com and is a member of the Machinists Union and National Writers Union. Roger has been a frequent guest on Fox News, CNN and MSNBC, has been quoted in the USA Today, Wall Street Journal and US News & World Report among many other publications, and is now a weekly contributor to WorldNetDaily.