Toyota dealers say they're ready for the recalls

By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 12, 2010; A21

As the piles of snow started to thaw Thursday morning, the phones gradually started ringing at Fitzgerald Auto Mall on Rockville Pike in Gaithersburg, with customers trying to make or reschedule appointments to get their recalled Toyotas fixed.

Toyota dealers in the Washington area say they are dug out and ready to take on their share of the repairs required by the recall of about 7 million vehicles. The recalls involve floor mats that might catch the gas pedal, a sticky-gas-pedal problem the company says is unrelated to the floor mats and braking problems in some Prius cars.

Gil Briggs, the service director at Fitzgerald, said a storage area has been turned into additional service bays, a dozen mechanics and other workers have been hired, and the dealer has brought in 100 additional loaners for customers.

"It's been slower than we expected with the snow," said Briggs, who expected to fix 50 to 75 Toyotas on Thursday but by late afternoon had done about 12. His mechanics used the time to work on the dealer's cars that needed attention before they could be offered for sale.

Myre Yarborough of Gaithersburg, who moved her Wednesday appointment to Thursday, dropped her 2007 Camry off at 9 a.m. to get the gas pedal fixed, a process that takes three to four hours. By 4 p.m., she was in her car and was satisfied.

"This doesn't shake my confidence in Toyota at all," she said. "The dealer got me in, told me what they were doing and I got my car back. I wouldn't go to a Ford or a Chevy. I'd buy another Toyota anytime."

Thanks no doubt to the economy, Briggs said he had no problem finding additional mechanics after going through about 80 job applications from auto technicians that the dealership had received over the past six months. He called the 20 he considered the "crème of the crop," and only two had already gotten jobs. Training on the recall fixes takes a day or so, and Briggs said he expects all his hires to be working full time in the coming days.

"We've put in place a whole, separate crew to work just on the recall needs of customers so people won't have an issue getting in," Briggs said.

The dealers are faced with a major operation. At Darcars Automotive, Vice President Tammy Darvish said her dealerships have sold about 53,000 new Toyotas since 2005, which is as far back as the recalls go. She was not sure how many of those cars would be affected, Darvish said, but "even if 20 percent are, you're still talking about 10,000 vehicles."

In the past two weeks, her four Toyota dealerships have fixed more than 1,200 vehicles with recall issues.

Briggs said that his operation has done about 200 fixes in the past two weeks, and that he expects to do about 2,500 a month for "however long it takes."

Alex Perdikis, executive vice president of Jim Koons Automotive, which has five Toyota dealerships in the region, said more than 800 car owners are scheduled to come in.

"We're got our doors open seven days a week, and we're making ourselves as convenient as possible," he said.

Earlier in the week, a Toyota executive said dealers nationwide have reinforced the sticking accelerator on more than 220,000 recalled vehicles, with repairs continuing at a rate of about 50,000 vehicles a day.

Enterprise Holdings, which owns and operates the Alamo, Enterprise and National car rental brands, said that almost 8,000 of its roughly 35,000 recalled Toyotas and Pontiac Vibes, which have also been recalled, are fixed and are back in service.

Fixing the Prius brake requires putting the correct software program into the car. It takes about 20 minutes.

"It's like updating your computer from Windows 2.0 to Windows 2.1," Darvish said.

Toyota's accelerator problem involves taking out floor mats, sawing down the car's gas accelerator and putting in a thinner pad under the floor mat. It takes about three to four hours.

Morgan Wright of Takoma Park, who owns a 2010 Prius, said he has felt the slight delay in the brakes when he goes over a bump and finds it "pretty annoying." He's waiting to get a notice from his dealership in Alexandria about when to get the car fixed.

"You just don't expect it," he said of the momentary pause in the brakes as it shifts from the regenerative to the hydraulic brake system. "This is the highest-selling car company. You just wonder: How does this get through?"

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