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Dealers pose tough questions for Toyota

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Dealers pose tough questions for Toyota

But post-meeting ire is reserved for media, government

Kathy Jackson

and Amy Wilson

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

ORLANDO -- Toyota's make meeting was not as contentious as some dealers had expected. But with the company mired in quality problems, dealers asked plenty of tough questions.

For example, they wanted to know how long Toyota had known about the safety defects that led to recalls and how the controversy would affect dealer business.

Rumors were so hot and heavy about dealer grumbling that security personnel were on hand throughout the hourlong discussion Feb. 15.

But Toyota had the meeting under control. And when the dealers emerged, they didn't sound mad at Toyota. Instead, they were upset with the government and the press.

"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. I live and breathe this brand."

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."

Don Esmond, senior vice president for automotive operations at Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., said he apologized to the dealers.

"I said, 'I'm sorry, and we'll move on,' " Esmond said. "We stumbled a bit on the quality end, but we'll recover."

Bob Carter, Toyota Division general manager, said dealers are repairing 50,000 sticky accelerator pedals a day and 500,000 units had been repaired as of Feb. 15. He expects all of the eight vehicles for which sales were suspended to be back on sale by the end of the month.

"We have an issue here; we made some mistakes," Carter said. But he said "there is no problem with our electronic throttles. We have tested every scenario."

He said the company is studying all ways of reaching out to customers, including longer warranties and vehicle discounts. Those decisions will be made in early March.

"They're on top of things," said James Bernstein, managing partner at Milton Ruben Toyota in Augusta, Ga. "I'm proud to be a Toyota dealer."

During the make meeting, Bernstein said, Toyota executives discussed the upcoming promotion and talked about such possible steps as an extended warranty, maintenance plans, and loyalty and conquest incentives.

"Toyota will do the appropriate amount of incentives to make sure they're selling the correct number of cars," said Larry Kull, owner of a Toyota store in Marlton, N.J.

Suggestions from dealers included a Toyota Web site where dealers can post customer complaints.

"We're not saying we will do it, but it was a suggestion," Esmond said.

Boston area dealer Ernie Boch, Toyota's second-largest volume retailer, expects the automaker to come out with a strong quality message in March. He said the current commercial is an apology.

"Next they will remind people what a great company they are," Boch said.

He said he thinks the current problems actually will help Toyota.

Said Boch: "I believe all the crap GM took made them a better company and certainly this will make Toyota a better company."


• Toyota execs apologize to dealers.

• Dealers unhappy with the media onslaught.

• Company studies ways to reach out to customers.

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