Toyoda Goes To D.C. — Part Ni

February 24, 2010

I’m giving my awards for best questions by Members of Congress to two individuals representing totally different political backgrounds. Rep. Chaffetz from Provo, UT, a young guy asked great questions regarding if Toyoda and Inaba believed:

  • NHTSA was at all influenced by American unions?
  • Toyota was treated the same way by NHTSA as GM, Ford, etc..?
  • NHTSA and Toyota (or any other automaker) were too “close”?
  • If the two former NHTSA employees represented a too close relationship.

    All very non-Congressional-like questions, because they were important, concise and thoughtful. They were answered with “no”, “yes”, “no”, and an explanation that the two employees are experts in their fields, and are an asset no matter from which organization they were recruited.

    Then Dennis Kucinich asked if Toyota ever had meetings to discuss the financial considerations of a recall (or discuss with attorneys the financial impact of admitting a problem). When the answer seemed too generic, Rep. Kucinich clarified and asked for specific, direct answers. The answers from Toyoda and Inaba: no discussions, and nothing is worth more to Toyota than customer trust.


  • Toyoda Talks to Congress

    February 24, 2010

    Mr. Toyoda of Toyota is speaking in a Congressional hearing right now. He did what seemingly no other company head testifying in front of Congress has ever done: accept responsibility and apologize. The Members of the Congressional Committee almost don’t know what to do with themselves, since they’re used to typical corporate legal talk and skirting admissions of guilt.

    Most importantly, Toyota committed on record to start sharing problem reporting data collected via dealer networks and consumer telephone lines with the NHTSA, which would make it the first auto company to do so.

  • Mr. Toyoda read his opening remarks in English, but has used a translator for questions and answers.
  • Mr. Yoshimi Inaba, COO and head of Toyota NA has been responding to questions in English. He bears a striking physical and vocal similarity to George “Lt. Sulu” Takei.
  • Both Republicans and Democrats have asked some interesting questions of Toyota representatives, as well as Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Dems and GOP can’t agree on much, but they seem to be in agreement that having no real standards for how a car gets recalled isn’t great and gives credence to conspiracy theorists who actually do believe that GM and Ford get off easier than Toyota.
  • The huge exception is Eleanor Holmes Norton, Representative from D.C., who continues to a) show a complete lack of understanding of cars and the industry, b) keeps hinting that the best course of action is more laws, regluations and requirements (for black boxes, etc…) and c) even demanded to know if her own personal Toyota Camry Hybrid “would EVER be recalled” after complaining that she bought the car reluctantly, because the Americans didn’t produce hybrids. When Mr. Inaba responded that her car is American, being built in America with largely American-sourced parts, EHN responded with “so you’re saying it’s the American’s fault?” She couldn’t understand that Mr. Inaba was simply saying that she bought an American car — more American than many so-called American cars, but EHN couldn’t grasp the concept, instead believing that Mr. Toyoda and Mr. Inaba were skirting blame. Thank god she has no vote!!!

  • Defining “Synergy”

    February 23, 2010

    synergy: (for sense of “synergism”) n. The action of two or more substances, organs, or organisms to achieve an effect of which each is indicidually incapable. combined effort being greater than parts: the working together of two or more people, organizations, or things, especially when the result is greater than the sum of their individual effects or capabilities (from Greek sunergos, working together: sun: together- ergon: work.)

    Synonyms: interaction, cooperation, combined effect, collaboration.

    Antonyms: Spyker-Saab, the marriage of which is official as of today.


    Conspiracy Theorists Unite: Are Toyota’s Problems A Part of The US Government Stimulus Plan?

    February 22, 2010

    I’m going to throw a Flintstone wooly mammoth-sized bone to the conspiracy theorists out there. It is possible that Toyota’s recent problems are rooted in a plot by the US government to recoup its investment in GM and spur job growth in other American factories related to domestic auto production?

    Simply put, America has a lot riding on the success of GM and Ford. For starters, there’s the bailout cash thrown at GM. (Hey, what’s five or ten billion dollars between friends?) Then there are the hundreds of thousands of jobs directly related to auto production…and millions indirectly linked.

    Of course, one cannot discount the ego factor. In a country where American Exceptionalism is a religion (albeit, usually by the most world-average examples of our society), the fact that Toyota was the best selling brand has the flag-waving Camaro-driving masses (who don’t realize the all-American Camaro has long been built in Canada) close to total cardiac arrest.

    So one must ask: what is the easiest way to stimulate GM and Ford’s sales, creating more jobs to meet higher demand, and allowing GM to repay its loans from the government? The answer seems to be: take out number one Toyota.

    “Attack your competitor’s largest strength” is right from the Karl Rove playbook. In Toyota’s case, its sales are based on a long-standing reputation for quality. Unlike Ford and GM, which can only advertise their own individual wins in quality surveys, good old Uncle Sam can annihilate a reputation with one good press conference. After all, the regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration can put into doubt everything you’ve believed about a vehicle and the company that produced it by issuing a well publicized recall with some additional words about a possible cover-up.

    Over 400 million vehicles have been the subject of automotive recalls since 1966. That’s an average of almost 9.1 million recalled vehicles every single year. There are about four million Toyotas involved in recalls right now, and that number could climb if the Corolla is recalled. Keep in mind, though, that over 14 million Fords were recalled for faulty cruise control units that could literally catch fire with the vehicle inactive in a garage and burn down a house while the owners slept.

    While the Ford recall (as well as the Ford Explorer/Firestone tire one) were top news for a while, neither had the government calling into question the automaker’s business practices in a similar way to the current Toyota recall. Indeed, for a fairly limited number of reported issues, the company’s best-selling products have been tainted. Basically, the only Toyotas of mass interest not on the list are the Sienna minivan and the company’s Tundra and Tacoma trucks.

    Kill number one, make Ford and GM leaders again and promote American financial interest. Sounds plausible, huh?

    Actually, conspiracy theorists and anti-government types — maybe it’s just that Toyota has been producing cut-cornered products for years and it has taken America decades to cut through the marketing to realize that Toyota is really no better than Ford, GM, Chrysler, Honda, Hyundai, or Nissan. Tell people enough times that something is high quality, and even when it isn’t working right, the owners will ignore the issue and maintain the illusion. Perception is exactly how JD Powers surveys for initial and long-term vehicle quality can time-and-time-again find huge differences between nearly identical badge-engineered vehicles from different brands.

    At least Toyota can rest peacefully knowing that whether its quality issues are real or a government conspiracy, people have been buying Land Rovers and VWs for over a half-century, and they’ve always been made like crap.


    Farewell To The First New Car I Ever Purchased

    February 17, 2010

    The 1998 Oldsmobile Intrigue

    Last night I said goodbye to the first new car I ever bought, a 1998 Oldsmobile Intrigue GL sedan. Almost exactly twelve years ago my then fiancé (now wife) and I went shopping to replace her well-used Ford Bronco and wound up with this Olds, which served as her daily driver until it was replaced last week.

    So much has changed since the Olds came into the family. It’s not surprising that the dealership from which we bought the car, Bellevue Cadillac Oldsmobile, is no longer in business. What I didn’t expect back then was that the Oldsmobile brand wouldn’t last either. GM made no secrets of the fact that the Intrigue was going to lead Oldsmobile’s fight to recapture market share from imports like Toyota, Honda, and even more upscale Acura and Lexus. Thanks to GM’s strategic ADD and need for instant gratification, though, this plan was dead even before the Civic-targeted Alero and Lexus ES-level Aurora hit the market. And though I almost cringe to say this…when the old white boys club of GM named a woman as the president of the Oldsmobile division, just about everyone knew entire brand was dead-car-walking.

    In my humble opinion, the Intrigue always struck me as a mixed bag. I wrote in a 1999 owner’s report published by Edmunds that I felt the Intrigue was one of the best-looking cars to come out of GM in years — muscular without resorting to tacky styling gimmicks and add-ons to which GM was prone. The tried-and-true pushrod 3.8L V6 engine might have only put out 195 horses, but I found it torquey enough to push the car from naught-to-sixty in just over seven seconds. While the steering’s heavy feel was obviously by design to trick drivers into thinking the car was sporty, I enjoyed its very direct, not too numb, and strong on-center nature. Given the factory optional “Autobahn Package”, which added uprated 16-inch tires and a larger stabilizer bar, handling proved great for a front-driver.

    It didn’t take long for me to be struck by the ghastly build quality. I noted in the Edmunds report that my wife’s car had experienced many of the same foibles as their long-term tester, including sagging kick panels, several NVH sins and interior panel gaps that were as uneven as rural highway pavement. If memory serves, I wrote something to the extent of “my wife and I plan to drive the wheels off this car, but I’m concerned that will happen sooner rather than later.”

    To be quite honest, I’m damn surprised that twelve years later the car still runs. Chalk much of it up to the fact that when I signed the title last night to its new owners, it only had 80,461 miles on the odometer. Thanks to the low miles and regular servicing, the car’s only major break-down was due to a simple leaking OEM battery at less than two years old. Other than that the issues have been limited to common GM issues: replacing the leaking plastic intake manifold, swapping out three out of four window regulators after they snapped, changing the bad vent blend door, and turning or fitting new front rotors at double the rate of any other vehicle we have ever owned.

    At the end of the day, the Intrigue was a good and very reliable car that could have been the basis of a truly great car given some investment on GM’s part in engineering out some of the rough edges. Maybe even with those extra hours and bucks in development, Camry might have still required fewer hours to fix failed parts. A Maxima would have been more fun to drive. An Accord would certainly have brought more money, although when I advertised the Intrigue for $2500 on Craigslist, I was surprised when it took less than five hours for someone to come and buy this Jade Green sedan with only 80,461 miles.

    I can’t say that I’m sad to see it go, but maybe that’s just because looking at the Intrigue through the backup camera from the heated/ventilated seats of my wife’s new Hyundai Genesis makes it look like an outdated appliance. It worked…actually far longer than I expected, but like so many American cars of the day, the sum of its cheaply-engineered parts-bin components failed to establish a true emotional connection with even a nostalgic gearhead like me.


    Toyota Unveils Its New 2011 Avalon…Like You Care!?!?!

    February 10, 2010

    2011avalon

    The new 2011 Toyota Avalon


    Toyota executives can’t be feeling happy these days. In the midst of shut-down production lines and global recalls for all of its best-selling vehicles, as well as cries from media sources that action was a direct result of US regulatory arm-twisting, there has been little good news.

    Until today, when it unveiled its savior at the Chicago Auto Show: the 2011 Avalon.

    Scratch that — the company is still screwed.

    Since 2005 the Avalon has been the best Buick sold in America. Aside from the nasty (actually, downright dangerous) five-speed automatic transmissions in the 2005-2007 models, the Avalon has been a way to get pseudo-luxury in a $30,000ish package. Given its size and ammenities, the Avalon has really competed against much more expensive players in the large sedan segment: Mercedes, Audi, Jaguar, BMW, and even Lexus. I even dropped my own personal sheckles on a 2006 Avalon Limited for daily transport and have been generally pleased.

    Times change, though. What looked, felt and performed great five years ago, however, doesn’t necessarily cut it in 2010. With this, Toyota had to freshen the Avalon’s face.

    Despite the long press release (laced with more buzz-words and flowery language than Las Vegas technical trade show presentation), there’s really nothing new or noteworthy about the upcoming Avalon. For 2011 the multitude of exterior changes (new lamp clusters, wheels and changes to the bodywork) are so subtle that even one of those fanatical Porsche fans who can point out the thousand differences in two seemingly identical-looking 911s would consider the new and outgoing Avalons identical… and then go on with his day without a second thought.

    The interior gets easy-to-spot changes, but not really many improvements, such as replacing some cheap-looking faux aluminum trim with not-fooling-anyone faux wood trim. There’s still no massaging or multiple lumbar support seats option, as found on other more expensive players.

    The 2011 Avalon finally gets the options of a rear backup camera and a touch-screen navigation system with real-time traffic (which replaces the absolutely unusable button-type on current gen cars.) Both are commonplace in entry-level luxury vehicles these days.

    So at the end of the day, the unveiling is a lot of motion for a little move…or to quote The Who: “meet the new boss — the same as the old boss”. As GM and Ford found out, if you don’t watch quality and fail to deliver fresh, stylish cars that have features competitors don’t, time at the top is short lived.

    And that’s what Hyundai is banking on!


    BMW’s New 3-Series Cars Look Like The Protective Bags Used To Ship The Sexy 3s Of Old

    February 9, 2010

    Courtesy of BMW
    The newest BMW 3-Series will be making its way to dealerships soon. Let’s just say that when BMW sent me the press release and photos a while back, I was ecstatic about the specifications, but upset over what the coupe and convertible actually look like.

    It took years for the BMW 3-Series to grow on me. In the 1980s the 325 (on the original so-called E30 platform) was an overly-expensive boxy thing that simply had no appeal to most people. In the mid 1990s, though, the E36-platform 3-Series became a serious force. It offered great handling, fantastic ride, good quality, nice ergonomics, and most importantly, it was sexy as a red formal silk dress on Sporty Spice. I even rode shotgun to my wedding in a silver E36 328 coupe, the experience proving smooth enough for me to perfectly complete the knot in my black bow tie in the visor mirror. My friend drove down from Seattle in this very same car to visit last week. He has plenty of money to replace the old car, but can’t justify it. It still looks beautiful and is a hoot to pilot.

    Somewhere along the way as the 3-Series continued becoming a better all-around sports-luxury vehicle, it also started losing its styling mojo. Some people blame Chris Bangle, but more likely it is the result of the corporate handcuffing about which most Chief Stylists and their department managers complain.

    The new 3-Series is a small evolutionary step from the modern E90-platform 335i convertible I convinced my father to buy a couple years back. (No regrets on any of our parts, either.) Excuse me, though, if I do say that the changes to new 3 destoys what appeal was left. Now the cars look fat and boring. Whereas the E36 was chiseled and athletic, the 2011 3 seems to complete the move to a pudgy, out-of-shape look that started with subtle changes during the 1999-2005 E46 platform. It has no character at all — like a fuzzy shadow.

    Don’t get me wrong — the specifications of the car indicate that it is as capable as Magic Johnson playing in an over-50 league at the local YMCA. But with the extra weight and additional electronic gizmos diluting that legendary “feel of the road”, the 2011 3 is on first impression the larger, indistinct version of its former self.