Expansion May Have Hurt Toyota's Attention To Detail

Toyota has announced yet another recall of more than a million vehicles over concerns about sudden acceleration. Earlier, the company halted sales of some best-selling models. After setting the bar for quality, Toyota has watched its ratings slip in recent years. Some analysts say the company — which is now the world's largest automaker — expanded too fast.

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A wave of Toyota recalls is raising many questions about the automaker. The immediate issue involves cars that may be subject to sudden acceleration. Last night, Toyota recalled another million of them. The bigger issue is whether Toyota may have accelerated its corporate growth too quickly.

Heres NPRs Frank Langfitt.

FRANK LANGFITT: For many years, Toyota was synonymous with quality. The cars developed such a loyalty with owners that Toyotas practically sold themselves. Jeremy Anwyl runs Edmunds.com, the car consumer Web site.

Mr. JEREMY ANWYL (Edmunds.com): Toyota for many people was sort of the epitome of durability and reliability. And in many cases people bought Toyotas because they didnt want to think about their vehicle. It just worked.

LANGFITT: But recently, Consumer Reports, a bible for car buyers, has found problems. David Champion runs the magazines car testing division. He says two years ago Consumer Reports took a look at the Toyota Tundra four-wheel drive and the Lexus GS all-wheel drive. The magazine wasnt impressed.

Mr. DAVID CHAMPION (Consumer Reports): Both of those vehicles were below average, and its the first time weve seen Toyota products to actually be below average.

LANGFITT: As youve watched Toyota in recent years, what do you think is behind that quality slippage?

Mr. CHAMPION: You know, Toyota and many of the Japanese manufacturers had a wonderful attention to detail. They looked at every single part extremely closely. They went through every single warranty claim. But in Toyotas case theyve expanded so quickly into many, many different marketplaces.

LANGFITT: Like other industry observers, Champion says Toyotas expansion was driven in part by its ambition to replace General Motors as the worlds largest automaker.

Mr. CHAMPION: You know, there is a certain ego with being number one, and I think they did chase that for a while. And, you know, the more you make, the more different models you make, its more difficult to keep that attention to detail and that focus on producing reliable vehicles.

LANGFITT: Earlier this week, Toyota halted sales of eight models because of complaints that accelerators were sticking. Champion said its not clear if the accelerator problem is connected to Toyotas earlier quality issues. Champion added, if Toyota fixes the problem, as its pledged to, consumers should not be concerned about the safety of the companys vehicles.

Mr. CHAMPION: I think this is more of a one-off issue - you know, theres millions of Toyota vehicles out there. The number of vehicles that have experienced this unintentional acceleration is in the hundreds.

LANGFITT: In fact, Toyota did not actually build the accelerators associated with the safety problem. An Indiana-based firm named CTS did. Automakers like Toyota draw most of their parts from suppliers. The company also uses accelerators from a Japanese company named Denzo. Dealers say Toyota told them Denzo accelerators are fine. Rose Byad(ph) is vice president at Darcars, which has four Toyota dealerships in the Washington area. She says some of her employees spent part of yesterday under dashboards, checking the make of accelerators.

Ms. ROSE BYAD (Vice President, Darcars, Washington): Its stamped on the pedal. We have to crawl, so to speak, underneath to look at the accelerator. Actually, I even looked at a vehicle today. We were able to do that while the customer waits.

LANGFITT: Publicly, though, Toyota says its halting the sale of all recent models that have been identified with the problem, regardless of who made the accelerator. Toyota did not respond to requests for comment. Dealers say they hope the company provides a fix soon.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Washington.

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