If the month of November could be used as a measure of an automaker's image and wellbeing, Toyota would not fare so well.
The company announced a large recall on Wednesday of last week, affecting 4 million vehicles, in an attempt to finally fix a problem that's been hanging over their heads for months.
The issue at hand is one involving stuck accelerator pedals. Problems occur when the pedals get stuck underneath floor mats, leading to a vehicle potentially running out of control and unable to stop. Officially the automaker is calling the problem "pedal entrapment."
The pedal situation produced what is likely an automaker's worst nightmare and a certifiable tragedy: a family of four crashed in California this summer after their Lexus fell prey to a stuck accelerator. All four people in the car died, and in the wake of that incident thousands of consumers were left wondering about their own accelerator pedal -- Toyota or not. Many of these people wrote into AOL Autos and commented on the stories we published. Our story on the company's floor mat issue generated 413 comments.
Unfortunately, this isn't the only problem the company is facing and the recall incident isn't isolated. As a result, Toyota's long-standing reputation for quality seems to hang in the balance.
Over the last month, the following issues plagued the automaker:
- Exclusion from best-of lists: The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety released their top safety picks for 2010 in November and Toyota didn't make their list of top safety picks.
- On November 24, Toyota extended its frame corrosion recall to include 2000 to 2003 Tundra models. In cold weather states with a lot of salt on the roads, the truck can experience frame corrosion and in a worst case scenario the spare tire may separate from the rear cross-member.
- On November 25, Toyota announced the recall of 4 million gas pedals in its Toyota and Lexus marques to fix the problems they've seen over stuck accelerator pedals
The Penalty of Leadership
As the old saying goes, sometimes it's tough being the king. Rex Greenslade, owner of marketing and public relations firm Gworks Inc and a former Ford Motor Company public relations executive, said that the entire approach to problem is different now that Toyota is the sales market leader in the U.S.
Vehicles Involved in Toyota's Gas Pedal Recall
Toyota's advice for owners of the above vehicles: Until the company sends you a letter asking you to come into the dealership, it is asking owners of specific Toyota and Lexus models to take out any removable driver’s floor mat and NOT replace it with any other floor mat.
"It's always easier to be the follower rather than the leader in the market," Greenslade said. "Toyota has enjoyed decades of sympathetic treatment from customers, media and other commentators. After the demise of GM, Toyota is perceived as the market leader, or one of them, and now has to address a wholly different mindset from those outside parties.
"It's never easy to change a corporate culture but change Toyota must: as a company it can no longer act passively on issues like this (or factory closures), to hope that procrastination or keeping mum will allow them to fade away. The honeymoon days are over."
To be certain, Toyota might be going through a rough spot but it isn't exactly in danger of falling off the face of the earth. Reputation is built over the long term, and just as Toyota might have some big things to fix, they have decades of quality to stand on. In the same light, GM's recent product hits are viewed within the context of decades of lackluster cars. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a generation to make people believe -- or disbelieve -- in your car company.
Given that, Toyota still has a fund of quality awards in its war chest. I spoke with their quality spokesman Brian Lyons and he littered my inbox with the awards and quality rankings the company has to its credit over the last twelve months.
"Toyota and Lexus took the top spot in 10 out of 19 segments in the J.D. Power’s Initial Quality Survey," Lyons said. "[These include the] Toyota 4Runner, Sienna, Tundra, Yaris, and Lexus RX, Lexus GS, GX, IS, LS and LX."
As manufacturers often say, it's difficult to point to one test or one ranking to get a clear picture of a car's worth.
Today's Toyota Buyers Face Tough Questions
With this recall in question (and, in process), Toyota has an odd issue to deal with: it currently sells many cars that will have to be fixed in the future. For example, the 2010 Toyota Camry is a part of the gas pedal recall, but the popular model is still selling at dealers in its pre-fix state. In October Toyota sold 30,136 Camrys in the U.S.
If you head down to the Toyota store to buy one today, you'll drive off the lot with an "uncut" gas pedal and the lack of the new brake override system. In other words, you'll have to return to the dealer in January to have the pedal cut down in compliance with the recall. Later in 2010, you'd have the option of receiving a new pedal altogether.
That sure is a lot of back and forth for what has historically been America's best-selling sedan.
Need to Know: How To Prevent Gas Pedal / Floor Mat Problems (Even If You Don't Drive A Toyota)
|1. Use only the factory-specified floor mat for your vehicle.|
|2. Secure the mat to the factory hooks, or clips, on the floor. If your vehicle doesn't have hooks or clips on the floor, make sure the mat is in its proper place and not moved forward underneath any pedals before you turn the car on.|
|3. Don't buy thicker, aftermarket mats that aren't meant for your vehicle.|
|4. Don't flip your mat over or double up your mats (as some owners do in the winter time).|
Our recommendation to Toyota on this incident is that they shouldn't sell a new product without the proper fixes regarding the shortened gas pedal and the brake override system. Why create a series of new customer experiences (in Camry's case, about 30,000 new experiences) that start off with a recall and a return trip to the dealer in a month?
As an analogy, it would be difficult to imagine Apple selling you an iPod with the knowledge that you'd have to return in a month to fix it.
It shouldn't be a surprise to find out that car brands don't hold onto their customers as much as they did in the past. There are now worthy competitors coming from every segment.
CNW Research recently released a study that showed Toyota's share of legacy brand purchasers (the share of vehicles replaced in the household with the same brand, such as a new Toyota replacing an old Toyota) fell 43.7% from 2001 to 2009. Households with two or more vehicles of the same brand (a strong indicator of a "Toyota family") also dropped, about 32% over the same period. Clearly, it's tough out there when competitors are building compelling products that meet or exceed segment leaders.
Many industry experts note that Hyundai and Kia are well equipped to take advantage of Toyota's mistakes. Fresh with interesting products that have won major awards, the Koreans are on pace to "pull a Toyota" on Toyota itself, mirroring the Japanese brand's rise against the American products from GM, Ford and Chrysler.
In the first part of 2009, no brand gained as much market share in the U.S. as Hyundai. With products like the Genesis (winner of the North American Car of the Year) and marketing programs that drive people into dealerships (Hyundai's Assurance program allows buyers to give their car back if they fall victim to losing their job), they are on a tear that doesn't seem to be letting up anytime soon. Every Toyota hiccup must be viewed as another opportunity for the South Korean manufacturer.
But all of this shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. Do you know where Hyundai's North American President and CEO, John Krafcik, used to work?
- How To Prevent Floor Mat Problems
- Research New Cars