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Toyota Improving Reputation After Fall From Grace

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Toyota Improving Reputation After Fall From Grace

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Toyota Improving Reputation After Fall From Grace

Toyota Improving Reputation After Fall From Grace

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One year after sudden acceleration problems with some of their key car models, Toyota has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in new safety initiatives.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Toyota has been making news for all the wrong reasons over the past year or so. Since late 2009, the company has recalled more than 11 million of its vehicles. Just last month the automaker agreed to pay $32 million in fines to settle an investigation into its handling of two recalls. And a reinvigorated U.S. car industry could make the road ahead more difficult for Toyota. NPR's Sonari Glinton reports on Toyota's prospects from the Detroit Auto Show.

SONARI GLINTON: When Akio Toyoda, the president and CEO of Toyota, was last in the news, he was under tremendous scrutiny. Toyoda was pressured into appearing before Congress. Here he is offering his condolences to the Saylor family, who lost four members in a fiery crash near San Diego.

Mr. AKIO TOYODA (CEO, Toyota): I would like to send my prayers again, and I will do everything in my power to ensure that such a tragedy never happens again.

GLINTON: That was February 2010. But at the North American International Auto Show this week, there was no mention of the tragedy. When Akio Toyoda took the stage to help announce the expansion of the Prius brand, he pointed to Americans' loyalty for Toyota products.

Mr. TOYODA: We intend to continue to earn that customer loyalty with even greater dedication to quality, safety and customer care.

Mr. MICHAEL ROBINET (IHS Automotive): This is all new territory for Toyota, and they're really learning on the fly in some respects.

GLINTON: Michael Robinet is an auto analyst with IHS Automotive. So how has Toyota been dealing with the aftermath of the recall?

Mr. ROBINET: Probably the grade you'd give them is maybe more like a C.

GLINTON: Robinet says in many ways Toyota's fall from grace forced it to look at how it does business. It had to change how it communicates internally as well as with dealers, suppliers, and customers. Again, Michael Robinet.

Mr. ROBINET: In some respects they underestimated the level of the public reaction to the situations, and in some respects underestimated how really serious this situation was.

GLINTON: Robinet says the company has made strides since its darkest hours. As part of its attempt to reshape its image, Toyota announced, just ahead of the Detroit auto show, it's launching a safety research center in Ann Arbor, Michigan. That center will focus on finding ways to reduce driver distraction.

But while Toyota was trying to regain its balance, the American auto industry was moving ahead. Ford and GM both stepped in to try to take a share of the marketplace.

Mr. BOB CARTER (North American General Manager, Toyota): Ford and General Motors call out Toyota more in their advertising than they do each other.

GLINTON: Bob Carter is Toyota's North American general manager. He says despite the new competition, his company is still the one to beat. Carter says he's confident. He announced Toyota's own version of a plug-in hybrid that will compete directly with Chevy's electric Volt.

Mr. CARTER: Competition breeds this kind of product being offered to the U.S. public.

GLINTON: So are you saying that a stronger U.S. auto industry makes you better?

Mr. CARTER: Absolutely it does. And I think a stronger Toyota will help make the U.S. markets better. We push each other.

GLINTON: Carter says no company is better positioned to conquer the future. But that's essentially what every other auto executive says.

Sonari Glinton, NPR News, Detroit.

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