Andrew Frankel

Road cars
Toyota’s sticky situation

I’m not sure I’ve known the motor industry in more volatile mood. Who would have thought two years ago that Porsche would lose its independence to become just another outpost of the VW empire, that Chrysler would be run by Fiat, that Ford would be in profit, or that the once unstoppable Toyota juggernaut would have tripped over its own pedals and started tumbling towards who knows what fate? Even if the sale of Saab could have been predicted, few would have betted on Spyker becoming its new proprietor. That is one story that will run and run. There are uncomfortable parallels with the last days of Rover, and all we can hope is that Spyker knows where to find the investment required to rebuild a brand that’s been run into the ground over a 20-year period by what was the world’s largest car company.

But it is the precarious position of the current holder of that title, Toyota, that interests me most. This once most assured of companies has become accident-prone, a dangerous affliction in this cut-throat world. First there was a major recall in the US over mis-fitted carpets, one or more of which may have cost lives. Then there was the worldwide recall of a wide range of Toyota products to fix accelerator pedals that, under certain specific circumstances, might become sticky or even stick open. Finally, there have been reports of inconsistent brake feel on the new Prius. As I write Toyota is in the process of recalling eight million cars from around the world; as you read the figure may be considerably higher.

Has Toyota started making dangerous cars? If you listened to the hysteria emanating from, in particular, the US, you would be forgiven for thinking so. Then again, the cynic in me finds it hard to ignore that the fall of the US auto industry was precipitated by the rise of its Japanese equivalent. And as by far its biggest player and the car company that overtook GM in 2008 as the world’s largest, if Toyota provided enough rope, I can’t see the still powerful US auto lobby wasting much time assembling the gallows.

Toyota has been unlucky, too, in its timing. As the pointless pandemonium caused by SARS, BSE and swine flu have shown we like a good scare, and with only the same old stories emanating from Iraq, Afghanistan and Copenhagen, the world was ripe and ready for something new with which to indulge its neuroses.

So perhaps a sense of perspective is required. On the entire continent of Europe not a single accident, let alone an injury, has yet been attributed to the accelerator issue. The carpet problem was confined within the US and the Prius brake issue in no way affects the car’s ability to slow down, merely the feel of the pedal. If you press it hard enough, the car will stop in the usual way.

Nevertheless, this is serious, as anyone working at Audi in the US in the mid-80s will attest. Then it was alleged that the new Audi 5000 would run amok without warning, rendering its hapless occupants victims of ‘unintended acceleration’. In due course, it turned out that in fact owners were treading on the wrong pedal. But it didn’t stop Audi sales being decimated, even after it was exonerated. The recovery was measurable in decades.

I’m not saying Toyota is entirely innocent in this: clearly even the potential for the throttle to jam open is a serious fault in need of immediate attention. But the public fear that’s been whipped up by the associated media storm is entirely out of proportion. I also think there’s an educational shortfall here: I doubt there is a single driver reading this magazine who would not first feel a change in throttle response – it doesn’t just jam without notice but becomes progressively more sticky – and then if it did stick open wouldn’t know either to dip the clutch or shift into neutral.

Toyota can be criticised for many things, not least its decision to cull all the sporting cars from its ranges, but would I advise anyone otherwise inclined to buy a Toyota to keep away because their prospective purchase might be unsafe? The very thought is nothing less than absurd.