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MICHAEL HILTZIK

Denial is a familiar road for Toyota

In 2002, when a condition in some Toyota and Lexus models turned oil to sludge and ruined engines, including in a vehicle owned by this columnist, Toyota at first denied there was any sludge problem.

February 04, 2010|Michael Hiltzik
  • Jim Lentz, president of Toyota's U.S. division, is on a full-scale PR offensive. Above, Lentz in a televised interview in New York.
Jim Lentz, president of Toyota's U.S. division, is on a full-scale… (Daniel Acker / Bloomberg )

Here's my Toyota sob story.

Back in 2002, a number of Toyota and Lexus models developed a condition in which their oil congealed into sludge and ruined the engine. My Sienna minivan seemed to be one of them.

Toyota was, shall we say, less than proactive. The company at first denied there was any sludge problem. Then it blamed the problem on the owners' failure to get the oil changed on schedule, as though owners of $30,000 Toyotas and Lexuses, among all U.S. motorists, were uniquely slipshod about their regular engine maintenance.

My case wasn't resolved until it went up to a regional service manager. He insisted at first that I prove all the required oil changes had been approved. Eventually they backed off demanding paperwork, since they'd all been done at the dealership. The fix was approved and, if memory serves, I was given the opportunity to put in a claim for a few bucks for the necessary loaner.

Suffice to say that Toyota did not evince a desire on that occasion to be "No. 1 in the hearts and minds of our customers," which is what Jim Lentz, the president of Toyota USA, assured Matt Lauer on Monday’s “Today” show is always the company’s goal .

Toyota did, however, evince an approach to customer service that might explain how it managed to turn a new engineering problem -- episodes of unintended acceleration by its vehicles, many blamed for causing injuries or fatalities -- into a complete reputational train wreck.

Toyota's handling of the new problem hews closely to its game plan on the sludge issue. Back then it denied there was a problem, implied motorist error and acted as though it hoped the whole thing would go away. Therefore, no one should be surprised to learn that the first complaints of sudden acceleration syndrome arose at least nine years ago.

Thanks in part to the indulgence of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, nothing was done about them then. That was so even as the toll of fatalities involving Toyota and Lexus vehicles from the subject model years reached at least 19 and thousands of complaints reached NHTSA.

The acceleration problem finally surged into public consciousness after the Aug. 28 crash of a 2009 Lexus, which took the lives of its driver, Mark Saylor, an off-duty California Highway Patrol officer, and three members of his family. The doomed family's last moments were captured in a 911 emergency call, as Saylor's brother-in-law relayed the frantic efforts to brake the car.

Toyota executives and dealers are undoubtedly hoping that this week's full-scale PR offensive by Lentz will end the public uproar. His goal is to assure the marketplace that Toyota has finally contrived a permanent fix for the throttle surge. Toyota this week will start modifying or replacing the gas pedal assemblies on affected vehicles so they won't jam, which it now says is the cause of runaway acceleration. Yet this is already the automaker's second explanation for the acceleration surges, and may not yet represent the last word.

Its first explanation was that the driver's side floor mats on certain vehicles had a tendency to slip under the accelerator pedal, gunning the engine. So late last year it announced a recall that grew to more than 5 million vehicles to remove some carpet padding under the accelerator, replace floor mats and alter the pedal. Replacing the pedal units -- the fix for explanation No. 2 -- involves the recall of 2.3 million Toyota vehicles; some cars will get both fixes.

Yet suspicion persists that the cause isn't mechanical, but electronic. Acceleration complaints skyrocketed after Toyota switched to electronic throttles in some models -- that is, throttles that work not by direct linkage to the fuel system, but by electronic relays, sensors and software. Although Toyota has steadfastly maintained that it hasn't found a fault in the drive-by-wire system, the company's credibility is shot. Congress and NHTSA are investigating that issue.

Even Lentz sounds unconvinced that Toyota has solved the acceleration mystery. When it was pointed out on "Today" that some of the complaints predated the gas-pedal units it's planning to replace, he acknowledged, "There are a lot of different issues around unintended acceleration -- it can be transmission-related, it can be cruise control-related."

As it happens, that perhaps unintentional disclosure conforms to what other Toyota executives told the staff of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce behind closed doors Jan. 27, when they acknowledged that the causes of unintended acceleration are "very, very hard to identify."

NHTSA, obviously, is a big part of this saga. Who does this agency work for, exactly? It's hard to avoid the impression that NHTSA bent over backward for years to avoid causing Toyota any intestinal discomfort. It systematically excluded whole categories of complaints from its inquiry, and then concluded that the residual cases were too small in number to warrant further investigation.

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