Toyota owners taking recall in stride

Posted March 19, 2010, at 5:27 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 12:04 p.m.

Stan Carson doesn’t mind being called a Toyota man.

The 56-year-old Dedham resident and Eastern Maine Community College instructor has been driving purchased and leased Toyota products for 20 years. His wife, son and several members of his wife’s family also drive Toyotas and are big fans, Carson said.

Still, Carson said he was shocked to learn about a month ago that his 2008 Toyota Tundra pickup truck was among more than 4 million Toyota vehicles nationwide that Toyota says need the accelerator pedal replaced because of fears that a presumed fault within it might cause sudden accelerations. Mechanics at Downeast Toyota of Brewer replaced the pedal about 2½ weeks ago, he said.

“The reason I bought Toyotas over any other car was their reliability,” Carson said recently, “and I will still buy Toyotas. I have had other second and third cars before — a Jeep, for example, one time — and there were several recalls on them, so I am not really shaken by a recall.”

The three Toyota dealers in northern and central Maine who agreed to be interviewed for this story say most of their customers resemble Carson — loyal buyers of Toyotas who take the recall, and the fears behind it, in stride.

“The average customer just has concerns. There doesn’t seem to be any panic,” said Bob Chapman, service manager at Charlie’s Toyota of Augusta. “Most of them are faithful Toyota owners and they know the vehicles are very well-made. Some of them wonder why we are being picked on [in the media].”

No exact counts

It is difficult to tell whether any runaway Toyotas have been reported, or verified, in Maine since the Japanese automaker began its various recalls associated with sudden acceleration in January. A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration spokeswoman in Washington, D.C., Patricia Swift-Oladeinde, said Thursday that her agency does not log that information by state.

She referred questions to an NHTSA-maintained Web site, safercar.gov. Hundreds if not thousands of raw, unverified complaints about all sorts of automobiles, apparently written by motorists, are available there. A quick search of several dozen revealed no listing of where the supposed incidents occurred.

And recent appearances to the contrary, Toyota does not lead automakers in the number of runaway complaints received, Swift-Oladeinde said. From 2000 to January 2010, Ford led automakers with the most complaints of runaway acceleration, 3,526, nationwide. Toyota products had 2,600 unverified complaints. General Motors was third with 2,250. Chrysler with 1,873, and Honda with 1,173, she said.

NHTSA said it has received about 60 complaints from Toyota owners about runaway acceleration even after they had their gas pedals repaired under Toyota’s repair program, but again, those reports are unverified.

The federal agency receives about 30,000 unverified complaints annually, Swift-Oladeinde said.

A query posted on the Bangor Daily News Web site asking motorists to report runaway accelerations in their Toyotas garnered no responses.

According to the three Toyota new car dealerships interviewed, a handful of reports of sudden acceleration have come from customers, but nothing that they have been able to document or replicate. Two dealerships, York’s of Houlton and Shepard Motors of Rockland, declined to comment or did not return repeated telephone calls seeking comment for this story.

“It’s hard to believe it when you can’t see any reason why it could happen or replicate it,” Chapman said Thursday. “If we can’t make it happen on a road test or see anything in the computer that indicates an acceleration, you are kind of chasing a ghost, so to speak.”

A handful of customers also said that the pedals seemed slightly sluggish on the rebound, but those reports are similarly questionable, dealer service managers say.

“It’s a group hysteria, a group panic, setting in,” said Richard Rodgers, service manager at Central Maine Toyota of Waterville, who has test-driven dozens of vehicles since the recall started.

“Everyone is so conscious of every little move the car makes, it’s hard to separate [the reports],” he added. “Is this just paranoia or a problem with the car? I have yet to experience an accelerator that was sticking.”

“You have a better chance of getting hit by lightning than having a runaway Toyota,” said Brian Geaghan, general sales manager at Down East Toyota of Brewer. “If we had had a car take off, you would know about it. It [the news] would be out there.”

Pedals repaired

The three northern and central Maine dealerships reported changing out accelerator pedals in hundreds of vehicles. Mechanics are replacing the American-made pedals with a pedal that has a small patch added to it that will help prevent it from sticking. They also are replacing stick pads under floor mats and car carpeting to in-crease pedal clearance space.

In addition, they are reprogramming computers in the vehicles to cut acceleration automatically whenever the pedal and brake are pressed simultaneously, Rodgers said. Vehicle throttle systems are also being examined.

Down East has serviced more than 1,000 vehicles targeted for recall, Geaghan said. He estimated that 4,000 vehicles in the Bangor area need such work. The dealership has about 20,000 customers on record.

According to the Maine Bureau of Motor Vehicles, 82,201 Toyotas were registered in Maine as of Jan. 28. A more recent report was not available Thursday.

Toyota has sought to counterbalance the recalls with an aggressive sales campaign that has helped cut sale prices dramatically. Ten of the most popular Toyotas are being sold for zero percent financing in deals that can run as much as 60 months, Geaghan said.

Toyota is also offering a two-year, 25,000-mile service plan to current Toyota owners as a thank-you for their loyalty, he said.

“These are the best sales deals we’ve ever offered,” Geaghan said.

Toyota estimates that recent recalls will cost the company $2 billion.

Rodgers thinks that some customers who complained of slight vehicle accelerations are confusing acceleration with the increase in engine RPMs that occurs automatically whenever the vehicles’ air-conditioning systems charge.

Still others, Geaghan said, are reacting more to news accounts detailing the problems than anything their cars are doing. It’s an irony that Toyota’s recall issues are making big news simply because Toyota recalls are so rare, particularly in comparison to American cars, he said.

“If this were Chrysler, it wouldn’t be a story,” Geaghan said. “We have this high-quality product, and people have great expectations for it.”

He predicted that more large-scale recalls will occur because of Toyota’s recalls having raised consumer awareness of potentially hazardous flaws in automobiles and that more automakers will follow Toyota’s example of dealing with the problem as frankly, and as quickly, as possible.

Honda, GM recall woes

More recalls are occurring.

In February, Honda announced it was recalling more than 430,000 vehicles worldwide, though mostly in North America, to fix defective air bags that can blow up and injure occupants.

On Tuesday, Honda announced another recall, this time of approximately 412,000 SUVs and minivans from the 2007-2008 model years in the U.S. to modify brake pedals.

Honda said it has received customer complaints of brake pedals that feel “soft” or that gradually exhibit a pedal height that gets closer to the floor before the vehicle stops. In affected vehicles, this condition tends to increase very slowly over time, Honda said.

GM announced early this month that it is recalling 1.3 million compact cars to replace a motor in the power steering system that, when it fails, causes the car to become harder to steer at lower speeds.

Affected models include the 2005-10 Chevrolet Cobalt; the 2007-10 Pontiac G5, which has been discontinued; the 2005-06 Pontiac Pursuit, the Canadian version of the G5; and the 2004-05 Pontiac G4, which is the Mexican version of the G5.

“The domestic cars are of better quality now than they used to be, and without the competition from us for car sales they wouldn’t be. That competition has caused all kinds of people to change how they do things,” Geaghan said.

Ironically, amid all the recalls, sales at dealerships in Maine and nationally are actually starting to increase, dealers said. Global marketing researcher J.D. Power & Associates announced Friday that new car sales are projected to increase by 25 percent this month, compared with the same period a year ago.

March new-vehicle retail sales are expected to come in at 883,300 cars sold, compared to 567,942 reported sold in February, a J.D. Power spokeswoman said. About 678,824 units were reported sold in March 2009.

Higher customer incentives and sales are fueling the increase in sales, although Jeff Schuster, the company’s executive director of global forecasting, warned that Toyota’s aggressive marketing could set off an incentive war among automakers.

J.D. Power predicts that for the year, U.S. sales will reach 11.7 million vehicles, up from its previously forecast 11.5 million.

Locally, Geaghan said that in February, Down East sold 63 new cars, about average for that month. As of Thursday, the dealership had sold 100 in March, he said, which is a very good month. Salespeople at Charlie’s Toyota of Augusta and Central Maine Toyota of Waterville report similar numbers.

“Our customers are seeing great deals, and they are taking advantage of them,” Geaghan said. “One of our salesmen sold 25 cars in eight days this month. It was a dealership record.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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