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Quality Problems May Hurt Toyota's Reputation

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Quality Problems May Hurt Toyota's Reputation

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Quality Problems May Hurt Toyota's Reputation

Quality Problems May Hurt Toyota's Reputation

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Toyota announced Tuesday it was temporarily halting sales of some of its best-selling vehicles for safety reasons. Auto analysts praised the move as responsible, but also said the safety problems are taking a toll on the company's once-sterling reputation for quality.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Toyota dealers have a big challenge on their hands. The automaker has told them to temporarily stop selling some of their most popular vehicles. Toyota said yesterday that it would take a hiatus in manufacturing those cars and trucks because of safety concerns.

As NPR's Frank Langfitt reports, the situation is making dealers scramble and taking a toll on Toyota's reputation for quality.

FRANK LANGFITT: There are eight different models on Toyota's no-sell list. They include recent versions of its most popular vehicles such as the Corolla and the RAV4. Toyota says in rare instances, people have complained that accelerators stick. Rose Bayat spent much of this morning trying to explain Toyota's move.

Ms. ROSE BAYAT (Vice President, Darcars): I personally have spoken with at least 10 customers today on the telephone.

LANGFITT: Bayat is a vice president with Darcars, which has four Toyota dealerships in the Washington, D.C. area. She says none of her customers have complained of sticky accelerators. But here's her advice via Toyota to anyone who runs into the problem.

Ms. BAYAT: You would place the vehicle in neutral and then you would firmly apply both of your feet on the brake pedal. Do not pump the pedal, just firmly apply the brakes, which will slow the vehicle down, and then you can pull to the side of the road.

LANGFITT: And call a tow truck. Toyota did not respond to requests for comment. Bayat says she doesn't know how long her company won't be able to sell certain models or how long it will take to fix the problem, but she says customers should feel comfortable continuing to drive their cars. Bayat says that's what she's doing.

Ms. BAYAT: I will drive a Toyota Camry home.

LANGFITT: And what year?

Ms. BAYAT: 2010.

LANGFITT: And it's part of the recall.

Ms. BAYAT: Yes.

LANGFITT: And you're not worried.

Ms. BAYAT: No.

LANGFITT: Toyota's decision to halt sales follows two recalls involving a total of nearly five million vehicles. Late last year, the company recalled vehicles because of concerns some accelerators were sticking to floor mats. The problem has been linked to a crash in San Diego that killed four people.

Toyota told owners to remove floor mats, but since then, the company has found evidence a small number of accelerators are sticking on their own.

Professor JEFFREY LIKER (Industrial and operations Engineering, University of Michigan; Author, "The Toyota Way"): It gets kind of spongy, where instead of just flipping back up, it moves up slowly.

LANGFITT: This is Jeffrey Liker. He's a professor of industrial engineering at the University of Michigan and author of "The Toyota Way." Liker recently spoke with Toyota's officials about the accelerators. He says the company thinks the problem is related to weather and wear.

Prof. LIKER: Apparently, it's moisture, and the humidity interacts with some material, and if it's worn, then there's some problem with the pedal sticking. And there have not been any accidents, but people are shocked when their pedal doesn't come back when it's supposed to.

LANGFITT: The accelerators were not built by Toyota but by a supplier named CTS based in Indiana. Today, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the Obama administration pressed for the halt in Toyota sales. Auto analysts say the company did the right thing but should have moved earlier. Jeremy Anwyl is with edmunds.com, the car consumer Web site.

Mr. JEREMY ANWYL (CEO, Edmunds.com): Before yesterday, they were kind of catching up all the time, and that's just like the death of 1,000 cuts. So they've taken a bold move. I think they have the opportunity now to get in front of this and, in so doing, repair their reputation. But the next couple of days are going to be critical because there is this sort of information vacuum and they need to get out there with, you know, solid answers.

LANGFITT: Toyota is shutting down five plants in North America next week to investigate the problem. Rough estimates suggest the affected models account for more than half the company's revenue in the U.S. Jeremy Anwyl says the recalls and lost sales could end up costing Toyota billions of dollars.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Washington.

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