Regular readers of this column, my blog (EarlStewartOnCars.com), and my Saturday morning radio talk show know that, even though I’m a Toyota dealer, I’m not “in the tank for Toyota. I tell it like it is and when I think Toyota is doing something wrong, I’m not afraid or timid about speaking out.
So, first I’ll say that Toyota brought a lot of this on itself. Last October 2nd, Akio Toyoda, the current CEO and grandson of Toyota’s founder, said “We have to listen to our customers and make better cars”. Mr. Toyoda also said that that his company has gone through 4 of the 5 stages leading to failure, of “hubris born of success, undisciplined pursuit of more, and denial of risk and peril,” Toyoda was citing Jim Collins, the author of How the Mighty Fail. He said that leaves his company in the 4th stage which is “grasping for salvation”. Looking back on the past few weeks, this seems almost prophetic. After hearing Akio Toyoda’s remarks, I immediately read How the Mighty Fail. I did so out of respect for Akio Toyota’s courage to “tell it like it is” and was heartened about Toyota’s future because the first step to improvement [the Japanese word for continuous improvement is “kaizen”] is recognizing and admitting your mistakes. I also read the book because I wanted to be sure my company would never experience similar problems.
Now, let’s talk about “piling on” Toyota. Akio Toyoda has been strongly criticized in recent weeks by virtually all of the media, especially the Wall Street Journal and Automotive News for going into hiding and refusing to address the recall issues. I have to ask myself “why?” given the astonishingly candid remarks he made to the world on October 2nd. Have you ever heard a CEO of GM, Chrysler, Ford, or Honda make such a statement? His comments that Toyota needed to “listen to its customers and make better cars” and that his company was “grasping for salvation” are unprecedented by any CEO of any company, auto or other, that I can recall. They were made in response to the sudden acceleration problem which, at that time was being addressed as a floor mat issue. What is it exactly that the media wanted the man to do... fall on his Samurai sword?
Toyota is the biggest and best auto manufacturer on the Planet. They build the highest quality cars on the Planet. Consumer Reports, in my opinion the most accurate, objective judge of consumer products anywhere, recommends more models made by Toyota than any other manufacturer. They have temporarily taken the eight Toyota models recalled off their recommended lists, but are putting them back on as soon as the pedals are fixed. As of February 8 all of these new models have the new accelerator pedal and are recommended. Dealers are in the process of fixing all of the ones that have already been sold.
A problem with the brakes of the 2010 Prius was announced and may result in a recall by the time you read this. Consumer Reports has gone on record as saying that the 2010 Prius’ brakes are safe and the vehicle is perfectly safe to drive. They also rank the Prius as the most reliable car on the Planet, including not only other hybrids but all gasoline powered cars too.
Guess what? Now the Washington Post is attacking Consumer Reports for saying good things about Toyota! The Washington Post also attacked NHTSA, the National Highway and Traffic Administration, NHTSA, for not being tough enough on Toyota. I wonder if they thought they were being tough enough when Ray LaHood, the U.S Secretary of Transportation, said that people driving recalled Toyotas should stop driving them immediately and take them to their dealers [how can you take them to your dealer if you can’t drive them?). Of course, somebody higher up in the Obama administration (Maybe our President himself] made him retract that statement immediately but “the bell had already rung” and more panic was created.
Why do you suppose this phenomenon occurs? I think it has something to do with the American psyche of “loving the underdog” and conversely “loving to kick the top dog”. Most people wanted the New Orleans Saints to win the Super Bowl even though the Indianapolis Colts was the better team. No other golfer except Tiger Woods would have suffered such a fire storm of criticism for infidelity.
Another factor might be “politics”. Our government has invested billions in GM and Chrysler against the argument from many that they should have been allowed to fail. You and I (the taxpayers) are now the majority stockholders of GM and Chrysler. We taxpayers are also the voters who will decide the next election. If our stock in GM and Chrysler rises we may be more inclined to reelect those who invested billions of dollars of our money in these two auto companies. One way to help GM and Chrysler sell more cars is to crush their competition. Speaking of pandering to those who have a powerful influence on elections, how about the UAW? They never liked Toyota because most of Toyotas plants are non union. If Toyota gets squashed and GM and Chrysler get larger, that creates lots more jobs for the UAW.
A final reason for this unfair piling on might be over zealous patriotism. Even though 95% of Toyotas are manufactured in America by Americans, lots of people still think of Toyota as a “foreign” car. If they gave this a little more thought, they would understand that Chrysler is a foreign car. Previously Chrysler was owned by Daimler Benz, a German company and now it will be controlled by Fiat, an Italian company. You would be amazed at some of the vile, racist email and voicemail I receive from bigots who think of themselves as patriots.
In closing I want to thank my customers and friends for the fantastic support they’ve given me and my family during these difficult times. When my home, cell, and red phones ring, most all of the calls are those of support like “hang in there, Earl. We will always continue to be you customer”. I’m writing this column on Sunday morning, February 6. A woman just called me on the red phone from my dealership. She had driven up from Boca Raton so that we could fix the accelerator pedal on her Camry. She told me that another dealer had told her it would be several weeks before they could get to her. Furthermore, not only are people still buying Toyotas from my dealership, but we are gaining market share like never before. In January we soared from the #31 volume Toyota seller in the USA to #16! We began February as the #1 seller of Toyotas in the Southeast USA.