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Toyota faced pressure from U.S. officials before announcing recall

Employee Raul Quecada places a "No Sale" sign on a used Toyota at a Toyota dealership in Alhambra, Calif.
Employee Raul Quecada places a "No Sale" sign on a used Toyota at a Toyota dealership in Alhambra, Calif. (Nick Ut/associated Press)

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By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 28, 2010

Toyota's decision on Tuesday to suspend the production and sale of eight models follows months of wrangling with federal safety officials, and stark disagreements with them over what was causing unintended accelerations.

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As recently as November, the company claimed that the acceleration problem was caused by faulty floor mats, a diagnosis that made for a simple solution: take them out.

The issue "has been repeatedly and thoroughly investigated" by federal regulators at the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, Bob Daly, a Toyota senior vice president assured customers at the time.

But two days later, the agency issued an unusual statement seeking to correct "inaccurate and misleading information put out by Toyota." Removing floor mats doesn't fix the underlying vehicle defect, it said, adding that it is related to the accelerator and floor pan design.

This back-and-forth, followed by new accidents and then this week's admission that indeed some Toyota models have defective accelerator pedals, amounts to a debacle for a company that became one of the largest automakers by burnishing its reputation for safety and reliability.

On Wednesday, customers deluged dealerships with questions, some rental companies announced that they were dumping all Toyotas and competitors advertised that they would seek to scoop up their rival's newly disaffected customers.

General Motors announced that its dealers will offer purchase incentives specifically to Toyota customers. It will offer $1,000 to Toyota owners toward a down payment on a GM vehicle and up to $1,000 to help to pay off current leases early.

"We decided to make this offer after receiving many e-mails and calls from our dealers, who have been approached by Toyota customers asking for help," a GM spokesman said.

Avis Budget Group said Wednesday that it is removing about 20,000 Toyotas from its rental fleets. Enterprise Holdings also said it is removing all Toyota and Pontiac Vibe vehicles, which are part of the recall, from its Alamo, Enterprise and National car rental chains.

The wave of negative publicity that is engulfing the company is at least partly caused by the carmaker's reluctance to own up to the allegations customers had made, industry observers said.

"First, they blamed the messenger -- the drivers, then they blamed the media for blowing it out of proportion, and then they weren't very forthcoming," said Michelle Krebs, an auto analyst at Edmunds.com. "They keep digging and digging and finding more problems. The question is: Have they found them all yet?"

For instance, the company had issued a safety advisory in September warning customers of the potential floor-mat problem, but it insisted in a letter to federal officials that it had not determined that the problem was actually a "safety-related defect."


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