Business

Toyota confident it has loyal customers

by Gwen Muranaka and Jordan Ikeda

TORRANCE, Calif. — “If there’s a problem, we fix it,” said Bill Coyne, general manager of South Bay Toyota, sounding frustrated.

As Toyota seeks to rebuild its battered public image that has seen more than 8 million of its vehicles recalled at a potential loss of $2 billion, it was business as usual at the service department of the dealership, located less than 2 km from the headquarters of Toyota Motors USA.

The general manager said the dealership, which services 3,000 cars a month, has received no complaints about the gas pedal problem that has forced a recall of some of Toyota’s most popular models.

“We did get a lot of calls after the hype job done by the media, but even those calls only lasted a few days. There’s a lot of loyal, dependable Toyota customers out there,” Coyne said. “But if you ask me if I’m a little worried about losing market share, yeah, I am a little concerned about it.”

While the focus in the U.S. media has been on the safety problems and customer complaints, largely unheard in the furor have been the voices of those who remain loyal to the Japanese brand.

Toyota employs 36,000 people at its manufacturing plants, marketing operations and service offices all over the United States, including the assembly plants in Kentucky, Indiana, Texas and California. In addition, about 166,000 others are working for 1,200 Toyota dealerships and local parts suppliers to Toyota. The carmaker increased overall investment in the U.S. from $11 billion in 2000 to $17.5 billion in 2008, the year it surpassed General Motors as the world’s top automaker.

“I think this will just make them be more careful in their future cars before they release anything, because they don’t want to do it again,” said John McHorney, a Los Angeles electrician who owns a Land Cruiser.

McHorney said he felt a lot of the criticism was being inflated in the media, but that it also shows real problems Toyota needs to address. “I think there’s a real issue, but I think it’s been called out a lot more than it needs to be. There have been recalls throughout the history of cars,” he said.

In fact, Ford Motor Co. is currently in the midst of the largest recall in U.S. history, involving 14.1 million vehicles. A badly designed cruise control switch could cause engine fires.

Just last April, GM recalled 1.5 million sedans made between 1997 and 2003 also due to the possibility of engine fires. In comparison, Toyota’s recall would place it fifth all time. Ford and GM share the top four spots on the recall list.

According to analysis by Safety Research & Strategies, a vehicle- and product-safety research firm out of Rehoboth, Mass., the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration has received approximately 2,262 complaints of sudden unintended acceleration in Toyotas since 1999. Toyota sold about 20 million vehicles during that period, for an incident rate of 1 in 10,000.

Detroit-based attorney and Democratic Party activist Jim Shimoura said Toyota’s recent problems have surprised many in the Motor City.

“Toyota has had this long track record of having the highest quality cars. People are very surprised, because they thought Toyota was totally immune,” Shimoura said.

But he added there isn’t a focus on the Japanese automaker beyond the political realm. Shimoura represented the family of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American beaten to death by out-of-work autoworkers in 1982.

U.S. autoworkers blamed the loss of their jobs on the rise of Japanese automakers. Today, Shimomura said, Detroit workers are more likely to focus their anger within, on layoffs and large executive bonuses given out at GM and Chrysler.

“People are so focused on trying to survive, they look at it but only a quick glance because the basic problems of Detroit are so deep and profound,” Shimoura said. “The recession is going to run deeper and longer. People are more concerned about preserving jobs. If it was a different time, there might be more of an uproar. People are in survival mode.”

Jodie Latszch, a stylist from Long Beach, Calif., said she will consider buying a Toyota in the future, but the company should be more upfront in communicating problems to its customers. She said she removed the floor mats from her 2009 Prius after receiving a notice months ago but has not received any correspondence since.

“I’m waiting to get something in the mail other than what I’m hearing from the media. I think Toyota should have some letter that they send out to explain how they are addressing this situation,” she said.

A marketing spokeswoman from Toyota said the company has run full-page newspaper ads in the top 20 U.S. markets, advertising before and after the Super Bowl to address concerns as well as communications to car owners through the dealerships. She added that Toyota.com has a wealth of information for customers.

“Our sole focus right now is our consumers. They are the most important focus that we have,” she said.

Despite the troubles, Toyota’s brand has remained resilient. An ABC News poll taken at the end of January, before the announcement of a recall on the 2010 Prius, indicated 63 percent of Americans still rated Toyota favorably.

Doug Erber, executive director of the Japanese American Society of Southern California, said he has been closely monitoring the crisis. Toyota has been one of the society’s major supporters, which has 2,000 individual and 130 corporate members.

“What I’ve heard is that this will tarnish Toyota’s image that it is all about quality and it will take some time to regain that image,” he said.

Gwen Muranaka is English editor-in-chief of The Rafu Shimpo in Los Angeles, the largest daily bilingual newspaper in Japanese and English in the United States. Jordan Ikeda is a staff reporter at the newspaper.