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Toyota USA's president can't seem to recall much

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By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Oh, what a feeling it must have been to be Jim Lentz on Tuesday afternoon.

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The president of Toyota Motor Sales USA went before Congress to explain why his company's cars have been accelerating out of control with sometimes lethal results. But hardly anybody on the House commerce committee accepted his explanations or assurances -- "a sham" is how the committee's ranking Republican described Toyota's fix -- and Lentz made his situation worse by acting as if he couldn't tell his axle from his tailpipe.

How many Toyotas will be on the road without a new retrofit to the braking system? "I can't tell you exactly."

What has independent testing of Toyota's electronic throttle-control system shown? "I don't know specifically of the results of the tests."

Is the faulty part in the accelerator part precision-manufactured? "I would assume so. I don't know."

Could he talk about whether there is any physical evidence in cars that have had the uncontrolled acceleration?

"I'm not an engineer," Lentz said, "so I'd probably mess this up."

Lentz's stammering performance put the "oy" in Toyota. If somebody was uneasy about driving a Toyota before Tuesday's hearing, they'd probably have been downright panicky by the end.

The committee chairman, Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), asked whether the fixes the company has come up with so far -- changing the floor mats and a piece in the gas pedal -- will solve the problem. "Not totally," Lentz confessed, a reversal of his claim a few weeks ago that "we are very confident that the fix in place is going to stop what's going on."

Lentz seemed to feel genuinely bad about Toyota's defects and recalls ("I think we lost sight of the customer"), and he choked up as he mentioned his brother's death in a car accident more than two decades ago. "There isn't a day that goes by when I don't think of that," he said.

But he had nothing to offer the angry lawmakers that could make Toyota's nightmare go away. While admitting that "we have not done a very good job" of responding to customer complaints, Lentz also found time to shift blame to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ("sometimes they get a complaint that we never receive"), to Toyota drivers ("pedal misapplication") and to Toyota executives in Japan.

That last explanation was the most compelling. Toyota has been treating the United States the way an imperial power treats a colony: It wants American consumers to buy its products but not to have any say in how they're made.


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