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Business is far from usual at Toyota dealership

Recalls and sales freeze turn loyal customers into royal pains at a Pasadena showroom. Still, there are eager buyers for unaffected models.

February 01, 2010|By P.J. Huffstutter
  • Toyota Scion Pasadena worker Mario Dominguez waxes a Prius Hybrid, one of the Toyota models not affected by the recalls and sales freeze. The dealership has fielded many calls from frustrated owners seeking answers and repairs.
Toyota Scion Pasadena worker Mario Dominguez waxes a Prius Hybrid, one… (Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles…)

For nearly two decades, John Symes has been a Toyota salesman.

His dealership, Toyota Scion Pasadena, is a glass-encased bazaar glistening in the shadow of the San Gabriel Mountains, with a burnt-red showroom that's half the size of a football field.

People loved coming here. And in a state where 1 in 4 cars sold last year was made by Toyota, they loved his vehicles.

Now, many of these loyal customers have returned to fill his shop with questions and emotional chatter about the Toyota recalls. It is a scene of curiosity, confusion and, at times, fear that is being played out at Toyota dealerships across the country.

Ringing phones have echoed through the showroom and jangled staff nerves as hundreds of frustrated Toyota owners called for answers and repairs. The receptionist's voice has grown hoarse.

A few frightened owners asked for a refund on recent purchases or a free rental. (The dealership declined.) Somebody drove up in a rust-covered car, wanting a free new one. One man parked his Toyota on the lot, left the keys with a mechanic and walked away. "Call me," he said, "when it's fixed."

"This has become a complete circus," said Symes, 60, a ruddy-faced, stocky man whose grandfather and father both sold cars in Southern California long before miles of fruit orchards and rolling fields were paved over for freeways. "We've averaged 125 calls a day. 'What do I do? When can I get the fix?' "

The response has become routine. Employees write down the caller's name, information, car model and year. They explain that Toyota will soon mail them a letter about the recall and planned repairs, and that customers can then make an appointment with the service department. They can come down sooner if they want an inspection.

Parts and service department manager Jack Miller figures it could be summer before all the repair jobs are done.

The staff remained unflappable. It's only when the customers were far from earshot that employees' own fears surfaced.

"We've replaced Haiti as the top story on the news," said Raffi Terzian, the dealership's new car manager. "All those people died, and somehow this recall is more important?"

Indeed, the public reaction has been a stunning turnabout.

Just three years ago, Toyota Motor Corp. sales boomed so much nationally that Symes expanded his business from the south side of the Foothill Freeway to a 7-acre tract where factory workers once engineered military airplane parts.

People clamored to get a job here. Before the recession, resumes piled high on Symes' and his sales manager's desks.

"Everywhere you went, there was a certain amount of envy from other dealers," Symes said. "If you work for Toyota, you are somebody."

The recalls couldn't have come at a worse time. A lousy economy has pounded the auto industry, particularly in California. Even with the cash-for-clunkers program, sales at the Toyota dealership last year were down nearly 30%, compared with 2008. The staff was cut to 95 employees from 130.

Yet the days that have followed Toyota's recent recall and sales freeze have been, in some ways, worse.

It is the emotional jolt that has been the hardest for workers to take. They have long assumed the Toyota brand was impossible to tarnish.

Now, the staff has found itself the butt of jokes. Instead of cracks about General Motors' government bailout or Chrysler's collapse, friends now sent mocking text messages about sticky pedals and crashing cars. People at a grocery store snickered that Toyota stood for "This One You Oughta Tow Away."

The jeering is pointedly clear. "You hear, 'I drank 15 scotch and sodas and crashed the car. Oh, it was the sticky pedal,' " said sales manager John Paolucci.

So over the weekend, dealership employees plastered smiles on their faces and tried to pretend that everything was normal.

Cars were sparse on the lot. A week ago, 235 vehicles were parked on the blacktop. When the sales freeze was announced, employees drove the banned cars and trucks around back, parking 110 of them behind a fence of jail-like black bars.

Then the sales team waited -- and waited.

On Saturday morning, a half a dozen salespeople shuffled around the thinned rows of vehicles. The atmosphere was laden with a What-else-can-go-wrong? kind of feeling.

When one customer came up, Xelonious Goree, 30, straightened his blue button-down shirt and walked over, a polite smile on his lean face, confidence in his lanky stride.

"Looking at a Prius?" he asked. "It's a great car, the Bentley of the hybrids."

The customer, a few minutes later, asked if it was part of the sticky-pedal recall. It is not.

Toyota has issued three recalls so far. The first, announced in the fall, involves 5.3 million Toyota and Lexus vehicles that the company says are at risk of sudden acceleration because the floor mat can trap the gas pedal.

A second recall, announced last month, affects 2.3 million vehicles -- Toyotas only -- equipped with an accelerator pedal that Toyota says can stick.

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