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Toyota's no-show CEO loses credibility

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Toyota's no-show CEO loses credibility

Nearly 9 million Toyota Motor Corp. cars and trucks are under recall worldwide, most of them in the United States.

Complaints are rising -- some for vehicles whose accelerators stick, some for errant floor mats, some for vehicles that maybe can't stop, still more for rusting frames. Now the company confirms it is looking into steering concerns with its Corolla compact. Which, this being America, means the lawsuits aren't far behind.

Congress, wanting to know what Toyota knew and when, has scheduled hearings. Lawmakers, from Michigan's own John Dingell and California's Henry Waxman to Toyota-state governors, are pontificating. Federal regulators are talking tough even as they fret a paper trail buried in their own archives might implicate them for doing too little for too long.

Yet the CEO whose name is on the building, Akio Toyoda, reiterated again Wednesday in Japan that he has no plans to testify to Congress. He has vague plans to come to the States. And there's little urgency, at least publicly, to convene the Japanese automaker's new cross-regional quality team of top executives.

You must be kidding, Toyoda-san.

That kind of Hamlet routine wouldn't last two news cycles for an automaker whose CEO goes to work every day inside the borders of, say, Michigan. Not for a company that is based here, that employs more than 100,000 Americans, that makes the bulk of its profits here, that builds many of its products here, that considers itself an American manufacturer -- and insists that others do.

Sound familiar? It should, for it was not too long ago that Toyota's folks, their suppliers and their political friends in high places were pushing new labels for the burgeoning foreign-owned auto industry operating in the United States, even as the Detroit Three teetered near an abyss that briefly swallowed two of them.

Why? Because labels matter.

At an auto show gala a few years back, the chairman of a well-known auto supplier based in Ohio kept referring to "the NAMs" -- the New American Manufacturers, he explained, which also could have been called ABD (Anyone but Detroit). There also is the "New Domestics" tag, a galling ruse that suggests some in the business still have trouble with truth-in-labeling laws.

"Toyota has become as thoroughly an American company as the so-called 'domestic' manufacturers -- and the facts back this up," the governors of Kentucky, Indiana, Mississippi and Alabama wrote to members of Congress last week.

It's absurd, all the more so now that Toyota's do-no-wrong image is being sullied by a mushrooming quality scandal being managed, poorly, from Japan. And its CEO appears content to a) let middle American governors do his political advance work while he b) avoids contact with media here or members of Congress -- unless explicitly asked.

How long do you think the CEO of, say, Ford Motor Co. would get away with that routine? Ask Jacques Nasser, the former Ford boss who answered probing questions over the automaker's Explorer SUVs equipped with Firestone tires.

Bottom line: You can't have it both ways, Toyoda-san. Can't claim the mantle of "New American Manufacturer" only to fall back on regional autonomy when the oil sludge hits the proverbial fan. Can't say you're accountable but leave friendly governors and your guy in the States to answer for the company, a dodge that would never work for a Detroit rival.

Nor can Toyota credibly play the role of progressive American company investing deeply in communities and their myriad causes -- which it has, undeniably -- but then let its CEO effectively hole up in Fortress Japan during a crisis.

Unless, that is, one motivation is to imply that critics are being driven not by a growing record of problems with Toyota's cars and trucks and what that means for the buying public, but by crude xenophobia and political payback.

Hints of that, and more, are coming from Toyota's friendly governors. They note "the federal government's obvious conflict of interest because of its huge financial stake in some of Toyota's competitors" -- a fact that would be more convincing if the federal and legal record of Toyota's "sudden acceleration" issues, among others, didn't stretch back into the last Bush administration.

Left unsaid is the suggestion that this mess wouldn't be spreading if the target wasn't a foreign-owned automaker. But that's coming, wherever the evidence leads on the cars and trucks Toyota sold to buyers around the world.

From The Detroit News:


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