Toyota Repairs Costly For Dealers, Drivers

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At Expressway Toyota in Boston, mechanics have begun making repairs to customers' cars. The work is being paid for by Toyota, but the dealer may still get hurt as his customers become disillusioned with the automaker. And the car owners are losing time and money waiting around for repairs.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Toyota dealers across the U.S. are scrambling to make repairs on the gas pedals of Toyota cars that have been recalled.

NPRs Chris Arnold has been following a Toyota dealership in Boston. He went there yesterday, as they got their first shipment of parts for the recall.

CHRIS ARNOLD: At Expressway Toyota in Boston, the owners have brought in extra family members to help man the phones on the first day of the recall. Robert Boch runs the business with his brother.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Mr. ROBERT BOCH (Toyota Dealer): So for all the hype, I thought Id have a line of cars outside, you know what I mean? But we dont have that yet.

ARNOLD: Boch has a steady but manageable stream of people calling in or bringing in their cars. The repair shop here has just received its first batch of the metal plates or shims that Toyota has designed to fix the gas pedals. Theyre pretty small, about the size of a coin.

Mr. BUCK: So these are the shims

Mr. DAVID WRIGHT(ph) (Technician): These are the shims that were put in - about the size of a nickel, yeah, the thickness of a nickel, yeah.

ARNOLD: Technician David Wright(ph) is upgrading the gas pedal on a Camry. He has pulled the pedal unit out of the car, and he uses a screwdriver to help slide the shim in behind the spring

Mr. WRIGHT: Now slide that in.

(Soundbite of noise)

ARNOLD: The shim keeps two parts inside of the pedal from sticking together. So the recall actually only takes just a few minutes to do, and the shim looks like it costs about 50 cents to manufacture. But the recall, of course, is costing a quite a bit more than that.

Mr. BOCH: Yes, it definitely is more expensive than that.

ARNOLD: Robert Boch says he'll be making a little money doing the service on all the cars involved, but...

Mr. BOCH: That does not make up for the lost sales. There's no other way to say (unintelligible) lost sale right now because of the publicity and the pedal recall.

ARNOLD: In fact, Boch says, he's only selling about half as many cars as he was before the recall. Toyota estimates the recall will cost it around $2 billion, and it's unclear whether all this will do any real long-term damage to the brand. Right now, some customers are nervous. David Wright says being a mechanic here, he's getting asked all kinds of questions.

Mr. WRIGHT: It's crazy. I mean the neighbors, they come and ask you what's going on and your friends, they want to know, is my car safe? They all own Toyotas, so they're - when can I get my car in? Can I get my car done first? And it's like, calm down, you know? You've been driving the car for this long, you know?

ARNOLD: And the word from Toyota is, if you're not experiencing anything out of the ordinary, the recalled cars are safe to drive, but you should schedule a time to get the upgrade. And many people in the waiting room here say they haven't been that worried about their gas pedals.

Ms. ELLIE ROBINSON: This is my second - no, no, my third Toyota, yeah. So I just love it.

ARNOLD: Ellie Robinson is a manicurist whose car is on the recall list. She is getting the pedal upgrade today, and she's understanding about the recall.

Ms. ROBINSON: My feeling is that anybody can make a mistake, and I have confidence in them, and I just want them to correct it and feel safe driving it.

ARNOLD: It definitely doesn't help, though, this latest news that there are questions now emerging about another possible problem, this time with the breaks on Toyota's popular Prius model. Customer Erin McDunna(ph) says it does make her wonder if quality is slipping a bit at Toyota.

Ms. ERIN MCDUNNA (Toyota Customer): It does, of course, yeah, because Toyota was well-known for their cars. You know, it does shake the confidence a little bit.

ARNOLD: One customer here, though, is very happy with Toyota.

Mr. FRED LAMATTA (Toyota Customer): That's my truck there, the Tacoma, the gray one.

ARNOLD: Fred Lamatta(ph) is a retiree who's come in to get his truck. A while back, Toyota decided some of its Tacoma pickup trucks were starting to rust too quickly. So they did a recall on them. And even though his truck is eight years old, Toyota did a $10,000 overhaul on it for free.

Mr. LAMATTA: My frame rusted out. They had to put a whole new frame in at no cost.

ARNOLD: So I guess that builds a little loyalty. I guess it has too, right?

Mr. LAMATTA: Oh yeah, yeah.

ARNOLD: Robert Boch, the dealership owner, says with this recall too, if Toyota does right by its customers, he thinks they'll remain happy and loyal. He's more worried about new customers getting scared off, which is why he and other dealers are pushing the company to start offering some really good price breaks.

Mr. BOCH: Now that we have the recall in place, we know what the fix is, we need to turn some of our attention to selling cars again. I want Toyota to put a better incentive out there so that now might be a good time to buy a Toyota. You'll get a good deal on one.

ARNOLD: Boch says a couple of weeks ago, it cost $299 a month to lease a new Prius. Now that's been cut to $199 a month. And he hopes more deals will be announced soon.

Chris Arnold, NPR News, Boston.

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