So how should you feel if you own a Toyota? The recalls and revelations of the past few weeks have kept the world’s biggest carmaker in the headlines in a way that would seem guaranteed to damage any brand. How will the reputation of this Ol’ Reliable of the car industry be affected by the saga?
One thing is certain: based on its past performance, the whole recall fiasco couldn’t have happened to a more reputable company. We all know the car adverts that appeal to our image as a cool city gent or rugged outdoor type, but that was never Toyota’s pitch. Instead, it played on safety and reliability being the two key factors for many buyers. Its long-running slogan “The car in front is a Toyota” suggests technical prowess and progress.
Which? has been asking car owners about real-life reliability since 1962. By 1982 we were getting feedback from around 20,000 motorists each year. Japanese, German and Swedish brands won all the glittering prizes for reliability, with American and British brands lagging behind.
That reputation for Japanese quality and reliability has remained pretty constant ever since. In 2006, when owners told us about 32,500 cars, Honda topped our reliability charts with a rating of 85 per cent. Toyota came a close second with 84 per cent. In comparison, Ford and Vauxhall were down at 76 per cent and Renault ranked the worst with 67 per cent.
In 2007, when Which? asked owners to assess the service provided by main dealers, Lexus (owned by Toyota) came top for both the buying experience and servicing, Honda second. For overall brand reliability, Toyota rated second to Honda in both 2007 and 2008, and Lexus topped the dealer sales and service charts.
In our most recent survey last year, we analysed feedback on more than 84,000 cars up to eight years old. The results allowed us to rate 38 brands and 294 models, making it by far the most comprehensive UK survey of reliability and satisfaction. And the winner for reliability was — you’ve guessed it — Honda, with joint second place honours going to Daihatsu and Toyota.
One Lexus owner told us: “Almost everything about the sales staff and dealership was excellent.” In contrast a Chrysler Voyager owner said: “There’s a lot on these cars to go wrong, and when it goes wrong, which is fairly often, it can be extremely expensive to fix. I won’t be buying another.”
So does this current debacle, which has seen several aspects of Toyota’s engineering called into question — from accelerators to brakes to power steering — mean that Toyota’s reputation is shot to pieces? We don’t think so.
This is partly because of the brand’s long history of building dependable cars and providing a high level of service. (A very high percentage of owners recommend the cars to their friends.) But it is also, perhaps surprisingly, because of the way the company has reacted to the crisis. There has been much criticism of Toyota in Europe for responding too slowly in public. But while the talk was of owners alarmed over the recalls and safety scares, on the ground Toyota managed to mobilise its dealers, design new parts for the accelerator pedal problem, get them shipped over from Japan in a week, and begin to fit them just three days later.
If the company’s dealer network can offer customers exemplary service and reassurance when they take their cars in for the recall work, it is quite possible that Toyota will salvage some goodwill from an otherwise critical situation.
The popular impression is that Toyota dragged its feet before announcing the UK recall, but some perspective is needed here. There were no serious accidents regarding accelerator pedals in Europe, so there wasn’t initially much basis for a recall. And the Lexus from which we heard a family’s desperate last pleas for help before their car crashed was not affected by the “sticking accelerator” issue identified with some Toyota models.
That is not to say the crisis could not have been handled better. The Toyota saga showed the European recall system should go much farther in what it demands of manufacturers.
Recalls and small modifications to production cars happen all the time — about one million are recalled each year in the UK — but they don’t usually end up in the headlines. (For a full list of vehicle recalls, go to www.dft.gov.uk/vosa and search the official database.) On the Continent and in the UK the recall system is voluntary, and relies on carmakers like Toyota to do the right thing. With the financial implications that could be involved in a recall, not all carmakers are sufficiently willing to stick their hands up and admit there’s a problem with one of their vehicles. Even if they do, the work may be carried out as part of a routine service, rather than corrected immediately. The problem with this approach is that the owner may never be aware that there’s a potential risk with the car and, if the car is taken to an independent garage for servicing, the work may never get done at all.
This system is fundamentally flawed, and Which? Car believes there should be a mandatory recall system in the UK as there is in the US, where the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration department (NHTSA) can force carmakers to act.
Later this year we will have hard data to indicate how well Toyota has weathered this storm. Throughout January and February we have been surveying tens of thousands of car owners, asking them how good or bad their car has been to drive over the past 12 months. Our findings will be published in July. They will tell us a lot more about the impact these events have had on Toyota’s reputation than any number of negative headlines.
Richard Headland, editor of Which? Car magazine.