Terrye Muratore in Perry Hall says the Toyota recalls did not… (Baltimore Sun photo by Amy…)
Car buyers who for decades have bought Toyotas for quality and reliability might never think of the brand in quite the same way.
The automaker made the unprecedented decision this week to halt sales and production of some of its top-selling models after finding possible accelerator pedal defects and after announcing a recall for 2.3 million vehicles last week. It also expanded a separate recall related to floor mats late Wednesday. Those actions are expected to rattle consumer confidence in the short term and possibly longer, auto analysts said.
"This shakes Toyota where it lives," said John Wolkonowicz, a senior auto analyst with IHS Global Research in Lexington, Mass. "People buy Toyotas with the rational side of their brain, not the emotional side. They have good resale value and are good quality, but are not the best-looking or the most fun to drive or the best performers. This kicks the foundation out."
Whether Toyota can salvage its image amid slumping auto industry sales depends on how quickly the company can fix its vehicles and how it responds to customers and dealers.
While some industry observers say Toyota's bold actions could serve to assure consumers, the recalls will likely have broad ramifications from salesrooms to factories.
The automaker said Tuesday that it would suspend sales of eight models, including the Camry, Corolla and RAV4, over several years from 2005 to 2010, depending on model. The company also said it expects to stop production of the vehicles at five plants in the U.S. and Canada. The sales freeze, Toyota's largest in more than five decades, is the latest setback for the company.
It recalled 4.3 million vehicles late last year - and another 1 million Wednesday - because floor mats could cause gas pedals to stick and suddenly accelerate. Last week the company said it would recall millions of vehicles to correct sticking accelerator pedals, but the company has not offered details about the cause of the problem or plans for making repairs.
Toyota is telling customers that the problem with the accelerator pedal is rare and that the company is working on a remedy and plans to send out owner notifications. Brian Lyons, a Toyota spokesman, said the company is "close to deciding" on a remedy.
Justin Newman, a Northwest Baltimore resident, drives a 2008 Toyota Avalon that was part of the earlier recall. Despite the problems, Newman said he has no regrets about his purchase. He said he spent six months researching the Avalon, loves his car and would consider purchasing another Toyota.
"I don't see a single safety issue as a necessary indicator of a corporate trend," Newman said.
But, Newman said, "there was clearly a catastrophic failure of their quality-control process with regard to their accelerator pedals." The latest news, he said, may prompt him to finally address the potentially dangerous driver-side floor mat, which he left in his car even after receiving instructions last fall to remove it immediately.
He also had opted not to take the car to the dealer to have the gas pedal shaved down, instead waiting for a final solution to avoid multiple trips to the dealer. He talked about it with his wife at the time, and they decided he could put the car in neutral if the accelerator stuck.
"Now, I guess I'm a little bit more interested in it," he said. "I'll probably go out tonight and pull the mat from the floor."
Peter Kitzmiller, president of the Maryland Automobile Dealers Association, said dealers will need to set aside those models covered in the recall and set up a process for handling the repairs that will ultimately be covered under warranty.
"It's a big deal," Kitzmiller said. "It affects eight models, and Toyota is the No. 1 selling brand in Maryland, so that's a lot of vehicles. It's going to create a lot of issues for them and for their dealers, but it's the right thing to do."
One Maryland dealer, who has Toyota locations in Gaithersburg and Chambersburg, Pa., said he does not expect sales to suffer in the long term because of Toyota's quick response.
"It will mean some turmoil for a couple of days while they decide what they want to do," said Jack Fitzgerald of Fitzgerald Auto Mall. "I think it's great Toyota is willing to go to this expense so they can demonstrate what the problem is. I don't mind a few days of lost sales to assure our customers that our cars are all right."
Another Toyota owner, Terrye Muratore, said she was happy that Toyota had taken proactive steps. She drives a 2002 RAV4 that was not affected.
"It shows that they're a responsible company," Muratore said.
Philip Reed, senior consumer advice editor for Edmunds.com, compared Toyota's recalls to the Ford Explorer rollover problems. Although in the Ford situation, he said, drivers contributed to the problem by not inflating tires enough.