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NINETY EIGHT REGENCY

Toyota faces a long haul

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Toyota faces a long haul

BY TOM WALSH

FREE PRESS COLUMNIST

Toyota's predicament could hardly be worse.

The company is all over TV, radio, newspapers and the Internet in a dreadful light for recalling 2.3 million cars and trucks, and halting sales and production of new models because of accelerator pedals that stick.

What's more, the problem can trigger a violent scenario in which a driver loses control of the vehicle at high speed, resulting in injury or death. It's similar in that regard to the Ford-Firestone crisis of 2000-01, when tire-tread separation caused blowouts of Firestone tires and rollovers of Explorers.

"You can stop production, but you can't stop public hysteria," said Jason Vines, who headed Ford's media relations during the Ford-Firestone crisis. "Very few people have the driving skill to act on the problem if it occurs, and there's no way to handle a fix on all those cars in a matter of days. This one's going to last awhile."

Law of the jungle

Toyota will be shown no mercy by rivals in a weak economy and tough auto market where dealers are clawing for every possible sale.

General Motors was quick to target Toyota owners Wednesday by rolling out a promotion to dealers, offering zero-percent loans or other incentives to people who trade in Toyotas to buy or lease GM vehicles. Ford quickly followed suit. Expect others to jump in.

If that sounds predatory, well, the law of the jungle applies here.

GM, Ford and Chrysler, for myriad reasons, lost customers in droves 20 or 30 years ago to Toyota and other foreign brands. The Detroit Three are making demonstrably better vehicles today, but Toyota hasn't given its loyal customer base many reasons to defect back to Detroit models.

This recall presents a rare chance to get Toyota owners into a Chevy, Ford or Jeep showroom, and GM wasted no time moving after them.

GM brass did debate whether it might look tacky to pounce on a competitor's misfortune. They didn't want to be seen as gloating, so they didn't issue a news release about the Toyota-specific promotion. And when asked about it, GM officials said it was in response to queries their dealers were getting from Toyota owners.

It's fair to assume, though, that GM people are not shedding tears over the problems of Toyota or any other competitor. GM has taken heaps of abuse for its own past problems and for taking government money to survive, and its competitors rarely miss a chance to take advantage.

No quick fix

Jim Press, former longtime leader of Toyota's U.S. operations, said this is "a defining moment" for the company.

He remembered the first Lexus recall in 1989, when Toyota won kudos for showering customers with attention, free gas, free car washes and small gifts as faulty brake lights were replaced.

Perhaps Toyota can yet turn this larger crisis into a positive, but it looks for now like a long, punishing ordeal.

link:

http://www.freep.com/article/20100128/COL06/1280470/Toyota-faces-a-long-haul

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