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

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, February 24, 2010; A02

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

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.

Toyota USA is a sales and marketing company, but manufacturing and safety decisions -- even the decision to have a recall of cars in the United States -- are made in Japan. That problem is a much bigger one for Toyota than sticky accelerator pedals, and one that Lentz's boss, Akio Toyoda, will have to answer for when he appears before Congress on Wednesday.

Toyota's imperial treatment of the American market would also explain, if not excuse, Lentz's stunning ignorance as he was questioned Tuesday by Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), a longtime friend of the Big Three.

"Please tell me the date that Toyota first heard of incidents of sudden acceleration in its vehicles sold in the U.S.," Dingell requested.

"I don't know the answer to that," Lentz replied.

"Please tell me the date on which Toyota commenced the first recall to address this problem in the United States," the congressman continued.

"If I don't know the answer to the first one, I don't know the answer to the second one."

Dingell asked how many complaints of sudden unintended acceleration Toyota USA had received since 2001. "I don't know that number," Lentz said.

Number of complaints forwarded to the NHTSA? "I don't know."

Did a U.S. official's visit to Toyota in Japan precipitate the recall? "I was not in the meeting."

It might have been even worse for Lentz if the lawmakers hadn't been so preoccupied with themselves.

Del. Donna Christian-Christensen (D-U.S. Virgin Islands) spoke of her "cute little Solara convertible" and her daughters' RAV4 and Lexus RX 330. Rep. Gene Green (D-Tex.) let it be known that he has a Chevy Tahoe but that his son "loves his Toyota Tundra." Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) boasted of three Toyotas in her household, and Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) mentioned four in his family.

Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), however, was more concerned with Joe Pesci. He declared that "My Cousin Vinny" was relevant to the proceedings because "it's probably one of the best movies on trial advocacy and engineering I've ever seen."

But the lawmakers still found plenty of time to heap scorn on the know-nothing Toyota executive before them. "It strains credulity . . . can't you just apologize? . . . Just plain unacceptable . . . there's no good outcome . . . it's hard to imagine."

Lentz had no good answer, because his overlords in Japan hadn't given him one. To paraphrase the old jingle, Toyota asked for it, and on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Toyota got it.

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