Toyota has been making the news lately in ways that I’m sure they wish they weren’t. As most of you know, it was discovered that they have a problem with their accelerators getting stuck. The actual frequency of this problem is under dispute as any accident involving a failure to break and involving a Toyota magically becomes a hardware problem rather than a driver problem, but things like sticky accelerators have a way of getting people’s attention. The media has been having a field day and the government is coming down hard on Toyota.

Some are suggesting that the government is coming down particularly hard on Toyota because the government is, along with the Canadian government, a majority shareholder in General Motors. The more I think about this, the less sure I am that one has all that much bearing on the other. Maybe it plays a role, but there are other factors that play a bigger role. Namely press coverage and Toyota’s origin.

The press has loved the Toyota story because it’s Toyota, the number one selling automaker in the world. Not just that, but Toyotas are known for their reliability. If it were Jeep or Suzuki having problems, there would surely be coverage but I am not sure there would be nearly as much. While nobody expects Jeep or Suzuki to be dangerous, nobody expects them to be particularly reliable, either. Reliability is what Toyota is known for and thus that makes it a much more interesting story. It’s also a story because Toyota’s handling of the issue has been insufficient. My friend Rick, a longtime skeptic of “sudden acceleration” claims (and not a Toyota owner), believes that the media has gone out of control on this. Whether Rick is right or wrong, Toyota may have been thinking along similar lines and expected more people to be skeptical of the drivers making the claims. Or else Toyota just didn’t understand our culture and our media and failed to grasp how devastating this would be. Transportation Secretary Roy LaHood has said that the North American leadership was actually very responsive but they had trouble getting through to Japan, so culture may be an issue.

Regardless, the media sprang on the story and politicians of all political stripes love to capitalize on a good story. They especially love to do so when the villains fall outside their constituency. This is where Toyota being a Japanese company comes into play. The Democrats’ constituency is in Detroit. Not just in that the government owns a Detroit company but also because of labor relations and in the case of LaHood (a Republican) and Obama himself, it’s right in their back yard. Toyota builds cars in the US, but they’re not as much union factories (or what unions they do have are not as strong because they did not exist when the unions themselves were stronger). Plus… well… Toyota is foreign. This country has Ford people and Chevy people and some Dodge/Chrysler people, but Toyota owners may keep buying Toyotas but they don’t identify with the carmaker as much.

So, in addition to thinking that this would be less of a big deal if it were Suzuki or Jeep, I think that it would be less of a big deal with Ford or Chrysler even though they compete directly with General Motors.

This happens to be the perfect storm and Toyota, a company not used to making mistakes, is caught in the crosswinds. In a way I consider it unfortunate because, while I’m not quite as skeptical as Rick, I do think that this has been blown out of proportion both by an overenthusiastic government and Toyota’s handling of the issue. We’ve more-or-less decided to get a Subaru for our next vehicle, but at least a part of me is wondering if maybe I should be giving Toyota another look. While Subaru is having trouble keeping up with their inventory, Toyota may be really anxious to make whatever sale they can.


Category: Road

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7 Responses to The Toyota Way

  1. SFG says:

    Two things:

    I recall reading in the WSJ a while back (no link, sorry) that Toyota had decided to start building more factories and that there were questions about whether they could maintain their reputation for quality. It could just be a case of hubris; in their desire to become the No. 1 automaker they forgot what they had always done well.

    It’s a good point that nobody feels loyal to Toyota…though I used to pride myself on buying Toyotas because it revealed I was practical and not swayed by feel-good advertising from crappy local car companies. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  2. Abel says:

    We love our Sienna. When out Saturn finally bites the dust it’s going to be (most likely) replaced with another Toyota.

  3. trumwill says:

    SFG,

    It doesn’t appear that this was an assembly issue but rather a parts issue. Of course, if increased production meant that they ran out of the good parts and had to use shoddy ones, it may be a distinction without a difference.

    Yeah, I know some people that like their Toyotas, but almost nobody that really identifies with the brand. No urinating Calvin’s on Honda logos. Their Scion line does seem to have some real fans, though.

  4. trumwill says:

    Abel,

    If we end up going the minivan route, the Sienna is alone on the list of vans we will be looking at. They’re the only ones with an AWD option.

  5. ecco says:

    It’s hard to go wrong with Toyota or Honda, recall notwithstanding, if you’re willing to pay the premium for them.

  6. David Alexander says:

    Weโ€™ve more-or-less decided to get a Subaru for our next vehicle

    As somebody who works for roadside assistance, I’d argue that unless you’re buying your Subaru brand new from the dealer, they’re not particularly the best cars to own used. In a smaller town like the type where you’re living, if they’re uncommon, I’d suggest joining a roadside assistance program with a generous tow programme lest one find out the local repair shop has no clue as to how to repair one properly, or opting for a conventional two-wheel drive car and buying winter tires. Hell, the last thing you need is one with a burnt transmission because the previous owner was a college aged kid who played racer with his friends or had the car towed on a regular tow truck. At least when you buy a new model, you know where you screwed up…

    BTW, Toyota owns IIRC, 15% of Subaru. ๐Ÿ˜›

    When out Saturn finally bites the dust itโ€™s going to be (most likely) replaced with another Toyota.

    I’m personally leaning toward Toyota since a family friend fixes them as a side business, or Mazda due to the superior handling characteristics of the Mazda 3 (and 6) over their competition.

  7. trumwill says:

    David,

    Subarus are pretty common in the northwest. I asked and looked around during our trip to Callie and they are fairly well represented there. I was previously smitten with the Mitsubishi Outlander, but Mitsubishi is not very well represented at all with the nearest dealership being three hours away. There’s a Subaru dealership in Tupelo (an hour away) along with most of the major brands. There’s only one brand dealership in Callie.

    We’re likely going to buy either new or lightly used. We were leaning towards buying new because the price difference was non-existent since on a used we’d be paying for features we didn’t want or didn’t care about (automatic transmission, for instance). I guess because of the terrain there is are manual transmissions available used in Tupelo. It’s the first place I’ve ever seen it.

    I managed to survive without AWD with studded tires in Deseret for three years, but there are a couple of problematic passes that could cut us off from Deseret or Tupelo. For a second car we may make due with tires, but we want one that can get us where we need to go.

    I knew that about Toyota, actually. I read about which brands are or were owned by which competing brands (ie Mazda and Ford, GM and Suzuki, Nissan and Renault, etc). Fascinating stuff.

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