At D.C. auto show, Toyota marches on with reduced lineup

By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 28, 2010

They showed up smiling and poised, with lipstick as shiny as a new car under the lights. They were ready to talk gas mileage and horsepower and handling. Ready to wave their hands, gracefully, palms up, game-show style.

The Toyota spokesmodels at the Washington Auto Show Wednesday arrived ready even to sing: Time for change is overdue. Toyota's made a real breakthrough!

But on the morning after the big news -- that Toyota would suspend manufacture and sale of eight of its most popular vehicle brands because of a mysterious problem that has caused some accelerator pedals to stick -- the spokesmodels also knew they were going to be pummeled with questions about safety, reliability and reputation.

Still, the show had to go on. There, gleaming on the Walter E. Washington Convention Center floor, staged before the news broke and still standing ready for their debut, were some of the very vehicles that were no longer available for sale at dealerships.

The competition watched with pity, sympathy and even a touch of smugness as their counterparts from Toyota huddled before the gates opened, presumably for a pre-game pep talk.

The Mercedes-Benz dealer said he wouldn't want to be in their shoes. "That's got to be a tough sell," said Gordon Chertoff, a salesman from EuroMotorcars in Bethesda.

Desiree Taylor, one of the Dodge show women, winced when asked what it would be like to be a Toyota model now. "I probably wouldn't have come to work today," she said. "They're probably getting a million questions. That's awful."

A Honda worker just shook his head: "When you can't sell the cars on the floor -- that's a problem."

One foreign-car salesman said he would refrain from mentioning the Toyota debacle to customers because he did not want to look like he was taking advantage of someone else's misfortune. "Why beat a dead horse?" he said.

General Motors went a different direction, announcing Wednesday that it would offer interest-free loans and other incentives to people looking to trade in their Toyotas.

For its part, Team Toyota seemed unfazed at the auto show. They looked confident and carefree -- the men in smart suits, the women with crisp red tops and gray slacks. When questions about the gas pedal arose, they answered directly but eventually steered curious or angry customers to a public relations officer assigned especially to deal with any fallout.

Not that she could comment on the record. But she had an 800 number on hand and a press release from Toyota that read: "Helping ensure the safety of our customers and restoring confidence in Toyota are very important to our company. This action is necessary until a remedy is finalized."

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