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Toyota starts to fight back

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Toyota starts to fight back

Company argues that overall safety record is normal

Neil Roland

Automotive News -- February 22, 2010 - 12:01 am ET

Tired of the flood of negative reports from the government and media, Toyota's U.S. executives are mounting a new and more vigorous defense of the company's tarnished safety record.

Company officials argue Toyota is being punished unfairly for a level of long-term safety performance that is well within industry norms. Last week they cited consumer complaint statistics to defend Toyota's record.

Critics say those figures have limited value for the specific issue of unintended acceleration and divert attention from hundreds of other complaints that have raised questions about Toyota vehicles. Still, Toyota executives and dealers are using the data to fire back at the daily pounding of bad news.

Toyota Division chief Bob Carter said only 13 complaints about sticky accelerators led to its massive recall of 2.3 million vehicles last month and the suspension of sales of eight models.

"That's too many, and it's our responsibility to fix it." Carter said at a news conference at the National Automobile Dealers Association convention in Orlando.

But, he added, "It's frustrating that it's gotten to this level [of government and media criticism] for 13 instances."

Toyota's defense sidesteps a far larger number of complaints related to unintended acceleration. More than 2,260 incidents of unintended acceleration involving Toyota vehicles have been reported since 1999, according to a safety research group.

About 5.4 million Toyota and Lexus vehicles have been recalled since last fall to correct problems related to potential entrapment of the accelerator by vehicle floor mats.

The company also maintains that the overall number of complaints to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration about Toyota vehicles in the past decade is lower than most other carmakers on a per-vehicle-sold basis.

Long-term, rivals worse

Carter cited an study that found 16 automakers ranked worse than Toyota in terms of general complaints per vehicle sold from 2001 to Feb. 3, 2010. Only Mercedes, Porsche and Smart had fewer complaints.

The report, which Toyota public relations officials recently e-mailed to reporters, looked at dozens of categories of possible complaints to NHTSA and didn't focus on unintended acceleration.

The study found that during that period, Toyota sold 13.5 percent of the new cars in the United States but was the subject of just 9.1 percent of the complaints.

But the decade's worth of data does not address the fact that Toyota's spate of recalls involve mostly recent-model vehicles built during a period of rapid company expansion.

The Edmunds study did not break out complaints of unintended acceleration, which is the focus of investigations by NHTSA and congressional committees.

One study does address the unintended-acceleration problem for all automakers.

In December, Consumer Reports magazine reported that Toyota and Lexus models accounted for 41 percent of all unintended-acceleration complaints submitted about 2008 model year vehicles before Aug. 28, 2009.

Ford Motor Co. was second with 28 percent of the 166 cases.

Chrysler Group, General Motors, Honda and Nissan together accounted for 21 percent of the complaints.

Put another way, the ratio of complaints per vehicle sold was one in 50,000 for Toyota, one in 65,000 for Ford and one in 500,000 for GM, Consumer Reports said.

The bigger picture

Safety advocate Sean Kane applauds Toyota for its January recall.

But he says Carter, in citing the 13 specific pedal complaints is ignoring the thousands of other complaints -- not to mention the federally cited reports of 34 deaths -- that NHTSA has attributed to unintended acceleration of Toyota models.

Kane is president of Safety Research & Strategies, a consulting firm whose clients include plaintiffs' attorneys.

In a Feb. 1 report, Safety Research said more than 2,260 incidents of unintended acceleration involving Toyota vehicles have been reported since 1999. Kane has said he thinks many of those incidents relate to faulty electronic software, and he has assembled examples of cases that apparently can't be explained either by floor mats or sticky pedals.

"Why isn't Toyota dealing with the hundreds of other complaints about the electronic throttle?" said Kane.

Since at least 2002, Toyota has denied that its unintended-acceleration problems had anything to do with the electronic sensors attached to its open-throttle systems. Instead, the automaker has attributed the problems to floor mats that interfere with the pedals, as well as to sticky accelerators.

Toyota and NHTSA now are looking into the possibility that electronic interference causes unintended acceleration.

Toyota dealers have seen sales plummet since the January recall and sales suspension, and market researchers have reported a steady decline in buyer consideration of Toyota brand vehicles.

'Media onslaught'

"I'm tired of all of the media onslaught," said Bill Stringer, a dealer in St. Louis. "We're not happy. We have a very strong brand."

Toyota dealer Jack Taylor of Alexandria, Va., is having trouble squaring his own experience with the findings of the Consumer Reports study.

Alexandria Toyota, which handles 5,000 to 6,000 repair orders a month, has gotten only about three consumer complaints of unintended acceleration since the publicity began last September, he said.

"My customers come in with questions," Taylor said. "They don't come in upset."

Said Sam Swope, a Toyota dealer in Louisville, Ky.: "This is a great product and a great company."

"I don't have any concern about sudden acceleration. I have thousands of customers but zero complaints from them. What the dealers are concerned about is the government."

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