Why the recalls are just what Toyota needed

Ready for a massive understatement? Here it comes...It’s been a bad month for Toyota. The proud Japanese automaker that taught the auto industry the value of “kaizen” now finds itself drowning in safety recalls. It’s violated the trust of its customers and has given the U.S. government, also known as General Motors, cause to launch an investigation. But as painful as all this may be in the short term – the recriminations, the humiliation, the huge dip in sales - it may be just the shock Toyota needs to stop leaning on a tired image of reliability and reintroduce design and passion into its lineup.

Once upon a time, car buyers were really impressed by vehicles that didn’t break, because lots of them did. If you built something with very good quality, as Toyota and most of the other Japanese makes did in the 1980s and 1990s, then you had a real advantage. But nowadays, though reliability remains incredibly important, it’s not something you can portray as a unique advantage simply because every consumer expects it. Constantly bragging about building quality cars these days is sort of like having a fast food chain advertise how carefully it inspects meat for e-coli. Yes, we assumed your burgers won’t give us explosive diarrhea, but how do they taste?

Most of the Japanese carmakers caught on to this years ago. Nissan and Mazda became sporty, Honda became (or remained) superefficient, Subaru became quirky and professorial, and Mitsubishi became, well, never mind that last one. Toyota on the other hand, never really got beyond reliability as a key selling point, and in fact, came to rely upon it more heavily during its growth spurt in the past decade. It killed its affordable, “Oh what a feeling!” sporty cars because they didn’t provide enough volume. It soured its green reputation by building huge new plants to churn out huge new trucks. And, where it used to relish releasing new products that totally annihilated the competition in terms of overall value and providing what the customer wanted, it began to settle for vehicles like the latest Camry, which is pretty good, but doesn’t try as hard as some of its competitors. For the past few years then, Toyotas haven’t stood for much aside from not breaking. That’s nice, but neither do most other vehicles. Neither, for that matter, do the used Toyotas customers already own.

So, in a way, this crisis is good for Toyota in that it kicks out from under it a crutch that already wasn’t working so well. Much to the credit of new CEO Akio Toyoda, the company has already shown it’s aware of the growing desirability gap. Cool concepts like the FT-86, FT-Ch and Lexus LF-Ch are just what the automaker needs to fashion a new image – fun, environmentally friendly, and youthful. The danger here is that a wounded Toyota might decide it has no time for such frivolous projects. Now is the worst possible moment for the company to revert to cautiousness and conservatism. After this crisis has passed and Toyota has done all the damage control, it needs to build exciting cars.

phatphil
Unfortunately the NHTSA and Lahood are focusing on a dozen or so deaths in the last 10 years over billions of miles driven. They are asking others to prove something does not exist - a circular logic, as only something that does exist can be proven. Lahood and his gang are sneaky, cunning and career politicians who succeed not on intelligence but on their gall and nerve. With their mandate, anyone who questions is anti-safety. Just like how Bush Jr. led the American population into the Iraq war was a search for something that did not exist. Anyone who questioned was anti-American and Bush Jr. demanded they prove WMD did not exist rather than proving that they did. It puts the opposition on the defensive and is a powerful political tactic but is immoral to use to fool society.
kiribiri
Gante, you should get yourself and your dad a 'vacuum tube' TV and an 'icebox', the real one, you know? The fridge stays in the kitchen whereas the car IS on the road! Your dad mistrusts dealers? BIG mistake, dealer knows and has best access to info regarding your car fixes. Just that they are not 'helpful' is because they have to make money in order to be in business, you know? And if you can swear by the reliability that built Toyota, just go with them, just don't *** about it and eventually just crash with them and don't be surprised they dodge the bullet and dwindle about their faults. Just like they did when people died in their beloved Toyota products. I hope this boo-boo is going to take them down really good and people start realizing that 'what's good from far - is far from good'. No car company can ever satisfy FULLY the requirements of this liability society that's North America. Remember Audi's 'unintended acceleration' syndrome? While NEVER proven against the car but the inept woman behind the wheel, it still took down the cars' sales and value for the next 8-9 years. I wonder if US governmnet aka General Motors is not a bit involved here.....
mkoptie
How did Toyota become number one. They purchased other companies to boost their sales figures. Number one. What the hell does that matter, that a greater collection of "me toos" bought into the hype. Anyone who reads the automotive magazines, looks up Toyota on the internet and just plain studies a little before buying would know that there were quality issues lingering in the dark service bays at the Toyota dealerships. It was a long time coming to a head and people have perished for their trust in that brand. People are suffering now with a loss to the value of their property with their trust in the brand. More losses are yet to come and Toyota just became the Fiat of this century. It will and should take them a long time to come back from this. Cars are in the pipeline for 10 to 15 years. How will you look at that car in the future. These will always be lemon coloured reminders of a company that could have been great and just didn't have the stuff to stay number one.
monoblocks
Nothing else to write about, other than to make a feeble attempt at stretching the boundaries of editorial journalism? Toyota's bread and butter may bring a collective yawn from the typical performance-minded enthusiast, but that didn't stop them from becoming Numbero Uno, now did it? Because their agenda doesn't fit with your specific view of what an automaker's focus and image needs to be is grounds for nonsensical blathering, simply because its recent oopsies by your judgment make its original marketing model somehow moot?Well it begs the question for me: is Toyota's sullied rep of recent days really THAT bad even after all this scrutiny and negative press?
omnivor
I agree with you David. Quality is like Jacks or better to get into the game - it lets you in the door but does not make you competitive alone. I owned the original Camry back in 83 and it was more than just a reliable piece of transportation - it looked good, handled better than most sedans, came fully equipped (those were the days of options lists for new US cars) and was reliable. It was excellent value for the buck. We bought our second Camry in 1997 and it was uninteresting and Toyota had begun cheapening the interior and reducing standard equipment - it was clear bean counters were now in charge. We ditched it in 2002 for a VW Passat.
Gante
Thanks for the response, but I disagree; cars still break down and there are a lot of people, like my Dad, that mistrust dealers, dislike cars and just want to get from A to B without any more thought given to their car than they give to their refrigerator. To those people, and they are the bulk of the market, quality can never be high enough, and a lapse like Toyota's really makes them consider other manufacturers. What Toyota needs is to refocus on making the most reliable transportation appliances in the world, full stop.
dzenlea
Gante: Agreed that journalists shouldn't run car companies -- we have enough trouble staying employed in our own industry. You're also right in that people do want their transportation to be reliable. But I think you'd agree that there are many car companies offering that these days, so then what? Why replace your old, perfectly running Camry with a new Camry when the latter doesn't offer any more appeal?And when I say "exciting," I'm not necessarily saying "sporty." The Prius is by no means a performance vehicle, but for a large and growing segment of the market, it's extremely exciting. Toyota can define excitement however it sees fit, but reliability alone is no longer enough.
Gante
This is why journalists shouldn't run car companies; company builds itself into the most profitable, valuable car company in the world, takes it's eye off what got it there and focuses on 'exciting' cars, and runs into a world of hurt. And it's supposed to solve this by focusing even more on 'excitement'. Leave that to Pontiac, it worked about as well for them. The largest group of car buyers just want a reliable transportation appliance, that's what Toyota does and that's why it's the largest. Also, any reason this site can't take you back to where you were once you register? I mean, I register so I can post, so why would I want to go to some obscure page and have to hunt my way back here. Did you design the website as well?
tumbleweed2
A time of crisis is most always a time of opportunity if it can be taken advantage of.Hopefully Toyota will have the vision and foresight to take advantage of this opportunity in the manner you have outlined.I don't particularly care for Toyotas as I have always favored Honda or Nissan over them because of the very things you mention in your article, namely sportiness and super efficiency. Toyota needs to remain a viable entity in the automotive field if for no other reason than the people who rely on them for their livelihoods.

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