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.