Consumer Reports is a respected consumer-advocacy publication, not unlike Australia’s Choice magazine. This credibility plus the considerable momentum of nine-point-something million Toyota/Lexus recalls meant this story was guaranteed a great run on TV and radio, and in the press. There was sensational video vision of an out-of-control sideways slide in GX460 (Think: Lexus meets Drift School). The final polish on the glace cherry on the icing of this steaming cow turd for Toyota was the official Consumer Reports rating on the 4X4: “Don’t Buy”. Hardly equivocal. It was also the first time the magazine had black-balled a vehicle for nine years, so it’s not as if the publication pulls this move semi-regularly as a PR stunt.
The root of the problem? The GX’s stability control system, Consumer Reports (CR) claimed, reacted too slowly. In one of the magazine’s standard emergency cornering tests (on bitumen) the video shows the GX460 entering a sweeping right-hander as the driver lifts off the throttle (simulating a chassis-unsettling panic reaction). Weight transfers forwards, and the rear wheels break free. The video depicts a big slide – the kind that looks great in controlled conditions, but lands you in a world of hurt, literally, in the real world. Late intervention of the ESC system, alleged by CR, allowed the vehicle to get too ‘sideways’, exposing the occupants to what the magazine says is the substantial risk of a ‘tripping’ type rollover.
Just to prove that everything in life is a good news/bad news story, while it might have been akin to kicking the Big T while it was down, the CR video was an instant smash hit on YouTube, scoring 106,000 views in its first four days online, mid-April – not including those views from other media outlets that lunched off the CR vision in their reports.
John Linkov, CR’s Managing Editor, Autos, said in the GX460 video: “When pushed to its limits, the rear slides way out. The electronic stability control does kick in, but it takes too long to regain control of the vehicle.” He added: “The way the tail slides out, if a wheel went off the pavement or struck a kerb the vehicle could roll over.” Finally, Mr Linkov said: “None of the other SUVs we’ve tested in recent years have performed this poorly in the test.”
CR’s ‘Don’t Buy’ rating soon became the only option in the game. Toyota US had just copped another kicking on the recall there of 600,000 Sienna minivans – the cable holding the spare wheel in place has a potential corrosion issue. Hot on the heels of the CR report, Toyota pulled the GX460 from showrooms across the US and Canada. A couple of days after that, the GX460 was also pulled from showrooms in Russia and the Middle East – the only other markets that sell the GX460.
Toyota said the vehicle was removed from sale so Toyota could perform additional tests, presumably similar to those conducted independently by CR.
The launch of the GX460 in China, which had been just a few weeks away when CR made its verdict public, hit a near-vertical speed hump. The GX460 China debut is as I write this on indefinite hold, according to the Wall Street Journal.
With the media in full ‘feeding frenzy’ mode, Toyota spokesperson Ririko Takeuchi told Reuters while the company hadn’t received any GX460 customer complaints mirroring the CR warning, in the four months since the vehicle’s launch. She said: “The foremost reason for doing the extra tests is to put customers’ minds at ease.” Ms Ririko also denied there was a recall of the GX460 in the wings. “There is no way of recalling a car … unless we find something wrong with the car. And we have not done that yet. It is premature to talk about any recall steps at this point.”
Ms Ririko was shortly to eat her words, however. Just days later, the Big T recalled both the GX 460 and the Prado. In total, 34,000 vehicles will have their ESC software upgraded. Steve St Angelo, Toyota’s chief quality officer for the US (currently the world’s most stressful job?) said: “Our engineers have conducted test to confirm the VSC performance issue raised by Consumer Reports and we are confident this VSC software update addresses the concern.”
Despite the recall of nine-point-something million vehicles, reports of accelerators locked on, defective brakes and – just now – ‘Don’t Buy’ dynamics, Toyota in Australia is enjoying its third-best quarter sales result in the past six years, with sales up a massive 7300 units compared with the GFC-inspired first quarter of last year. And while the company’s market share has come off the pace a paltry 0.3 per cent – to its second-lowest first quarter market share for six years – better than one in five vehicles sold here still wears the loopy Toyota logo. That’s been the case every year from 2006, inclusive.
Financial experts say Australia weathered the financial crisis better than just about every other developed country. The same resilience seems to underpin consumer confidence in Toyota here. In the USA in February, the recalls hit Toyota harder than the GFC. In the US, the Big T’s sales slumped almost nine per cent in February this year, compared with February 2009. Here, it’s a case of: Safety recalls? What recalls? In Australia, Toyota’s February sales went up almost 18 per cent from 2009 to 2010. Even with its accelerators, brakes and stability control systems under a cloud, Toyota remains virtually unstoppable Down Under.
I don’t know how many consumers think in these terms, but you might like to consider the history of defective automobiles before kicking Toyota too hard in your own minds. Toyota’s quality reputation is copping the biggest short-term kicking I’ve ever seen on the world stage, at least in the Automotive industry, and there have been some big ones to compare it with. The infamous Explorer/Firestone debacle was one recent-ish one, and earlier, the notorious Chevy Corvair’s ‘tuck-under / kill-me-now’ suspension, which you can read about in Ralph Nader’s epic 1965 book: Unsafe at any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile. The big difference here is that 45 years ago, GM responded to Nader’s scathing Corvair criticism by attempting to destroy his reputation and gag him.
(This included, it’s alleged, casting public domain aspersions on Nader’s political, social, racial, religious and sexual proclivities, wire-tapping his telephone, conducting OTT surveillance on him, harassment generally and even procuring girls in an attempt to entrap him into illicit relationships. All for criticizing a patently unsafe car! At least some of that must’ve been true. On 22 March 1966 then-GM president James Roche was forced to apologise to Nader for GM’s harassment before a US Senate subcommittee hearing.)
How times have changed. In 2010, Toyota at least is dealing with its problems in an open, forthright way, and getting on with the mammoth job of fixing them. The company might not be overjoyed, but at least it is acting 100 per cent ethically. Given the way things used to be done, I reckon they deserve a big tick for that.