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Toyota flexes its muscles to defend reputation

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Toyota flexes its muscles to defend reputation

The detail was excruciating at times, but the message of Toyota Motor Corp.'s bought-and-paid-for dismemberment Monday of an Illinois engineering professor's testimony before Congress was clear:

The Japanese automaker won't let allegedly rigged tests devised by an expert -- cited by a national TV network and used by trial lawyers -- go unanswered, lest their actions beggar Toyota's money machine in the United States by destroying its enviable reputation for bullet-proof quality and reliability.

To be sure, Toyota has a massive problem: More than 8 million cars and trucks recalled worldwide to answer concerns over "sudden unintended acceleration;" floor mats that become entangled with accelerator pedals; brakes in hybrid cars that may not brake as expected; and concerns that the automaker's electronic throttle control system may not operate properly.

Toyota also has a massive war chest chocked with more than $30 billion in cash; a triple-A credit rating that reflects its operational prowess and the esteem it enjoys among investors; carefully cultivated political friends in the right places; and a willingness to hire the best heavyweight law firms, political consultants and crack crisis communications teams that money can buy.

Which is why it didn't take long for Toyota to assemble its own counter-punch to David Gilbert, the Southern Illinois University automotive engineering professor who warned Congress -- and any Toyota consumer with access to newspapers, a television or an Internet connection -- that the automaker's electronic throttle control is dodgy, at best.

First, describe Gilbert (and any news crew willing to cite his work) as handmaidens to the plaintiffs' bar. Second, deploy your own bought-and-paid-for experts from Exponent Inc. to pick apart Gilbert's admittedly short work. Third, add a Stanford University professor, Chris Gerdes, to further undermine Gilbert -- after, that is, acknowledging that Toyota funds research projects at Stanford.

Are there any experts out there who aren't in the pay of Toyota on one side, or the trial lawyers on the other? I can't be the only one who sees the irony in Toyota allies moving to undermine the credibility of an expert paid by lawyers who stand to reap millions from judgments against Toyota with experts who are paid by Toyota to destroy critics hired by trial lawyers.

Gilbert may be among the first to experience Toyota's push-back, but he won't be the last. From members of Congress and government bureaucrats to rival automakers and the lawyers in search of fat contingency verdicts, Toyota is demonstrating a willingness to use political pressure, public shaming, technological one-upsmanship and financial muscle to contain damage to its reputation.

In all that, the Japanese automaker is acting like the quintessentially American one it risibly claims to be.

The night before the first round of hearings last month on Capitol Hill, Toyota quietly circulated a document around congressional offices designed to show that it ranked 17th in safety recalls over the past decade. The simple counting exercise failed to account for the fact that Ford Motor Co. (first) and General Motors Corp. (second) commanded larger shares of the U.S. market and had far more models still on the road in their home market.

Yes, safety recalls are an industrywide issue, but that's beside a far more important point in this case: Why did it take the highly publicized deaths of four in San Diego to force Toyota to a) act and b) communicate with its customers about a series of problems that would be easier to manage if a culture of secrecy didn't c) cloud transparency?

Spreading the culpability for safety concerns, as Toyota clearly aims to do, isn't playing well with Detroit rivals slowly getting off their collective knees. Neither will an inevitable decision by Toyota to amp up the incentive game in a bid to retain customers and keep from losing would-be ones unnerved by all the bad publicity.

As much as the likes of GM, Ford, the United Auto Workers and their people may quietly relish Toyota's troubles, the simple fact is that the Japanese juggernaut has the resources to launch the kind of incentive war Detroit cannot easily afford to play -- not if its bosses are serious about rebuilding brand equity destroyed by years of buying market share through cut-rate financing and sales to rental-car companies.

Detroit, among others, may benefit from Toyota's comeuppance. But they'll have to pay for the privilege.



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