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Toyota charts upset rivals

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Toyota charts upset rivals



Toyota's recall troubles might appear at first to be an occasion for great glee among Ford, General Motors and Chrysler, a chance to steal back long-lost customers from their biggest Asian competitor.

And momentarily, at least, there is that opportunity. February sales numbers showed a decline of 9% for Toyota while the Detroit Three -- especially a surging Ford -- posted gains.

This column, however, is about what the late radio legend Paul Harvey would call "the rest of the story."

Detroit auto folks are privately fuming over what they see as calculated, misleading attempts by Toyota to deflect attention from its own failings by trashing the quality records of Ford, GM and Chrysler.

This rancor over Toyota's PR tactics is blowing another hole in the already shaky solidarity of the Alliance of American Automobile Manufacturers, which includes Detroit and foreign firms, just as a restless U.S. Congress looks poised to unleash a wave of costly new safety rules on the entire industry.

None of Detroit's top guns wants to publicly bash Toyota now, because (a) Detroit still doesn't have much credibility on Capitol Hill, and (b) they might just look like whiners grousing about Toyota.

Bad blood brewing

But behind the scenes, Detroit loyalists accuse Toyota of "lobbyist malpractice" and say things like, "It's tearing the whole industry apart."

Here's why: Just as top Toyota honchos were to testify in Washington, D.C., about a spate of recalls and safety complaints, Toyota sent a set of charts under the headline "Automotive Recalls in Perspective" to offices of key congressional committee members. One striking bar graph showed that Ford, GM and Chrysler were the overwhelming leaders in U.S. safety recall campaigns during the past decade, each with around triple the recalls of Toyota.

So what's wrong with that, if the numbers were correct?

Beside the point

The charts were totally irrelevant to the point of the hearings, that's what.

Toyota was hauled before Congress to explain why it took so long to address specific safety complaints, whether it was hiding things, why U.S. regulators had to prod Toyota into action -- not to compare a decade's worth of industrywide recall data.

Indeed, Toyota sending out those charts was precisely the type of obfuscation and misdirection that's gotten the automaker into such hot water.

Meanwhile, as Congress makes noise about mandating brake-override technology and adding other costly new rules, the Auto Alliance, the industry's joint-lobbying group, is less than united.

Honda and Nissan are not members; Toyota and the German firms are.

The Detroit Three, to varying degrees in this tough economy, are questioning the value of the multimillion-dollar checks they've written to support the alliance in years past.

Now the bad blood over Toyota's tactics threatens to further split the industry, even on issues like safety and the upcoming cap-and-trade debates on energy and environmental policy.



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