Real Wheels: Latest on Toyota recall

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The Washington Post's Mike Musgrove previews the Washington Auto Show, which opens Wednesday at the convention center.

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Warren Brown
Washington Post columnist
Monday, February 1, 2010; 12:00 PM

Washington Post cars columnist Warren Brown was online Monday, February 1, at noon ET to discuss the highs and lows of the Washington Auto Show, and the latest news concerning the Toyota recall. Plus, he gave purchase advice to readers. Brown has covered the cars industry for The Washington Post since 1982.

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Kensington, Md.: Warren, my family of five is currently driving a 2000 Sienna and now looking for new car (this time with AWD). We still would like a car with a third row and potential for cargo space (one kid going off to college next year). We are considering the 2011 Sienna but am turned off by recent Toyota events so now looking at Hyundai Vera Cruz, Subaru Tribeca and Chevy Traverse. Any thoughts/advice?

Warren Brown: The Sienna remains a good choice, regardless of current concerns about sticky acceleration pedals. But Toyota is hurting itself in this one, playing more to lawyers than to consumers. After nearly three yers with this sticky pedal business, Toyota either shiuld have dropped the allegedly offending supplier, thoroughly investigated its own specs for the device, or otherwise come up with a cause/fix. The current situation says what I've long said: Toyota makes mistakes, too.

But in terms of the heart of your question:

I'd check GM's people-hauler triumvirate: the Chevrolet Traverse, GMC Acadia and Buick Enclave. All seat eight people. All have best-in-clas behind third row luggage capacity. All have top safety ratings.

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Warren Brown: Heads up, good people: Check out the DC Car Show poll to the right of this chat. In terms of like-dislike, you can vote "yes" or "no" online. We thank you for your participation. -- Warren

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Fiat: I don't know what to think when the two Fiat girls get more attention yesterday than the Fiat 500 cars themselves...Doesn't give me much hope for Fiat's intentions/vision for the Chrysler Group. Who were those girls anyway?

Warren Brown: Models. There are "girls" at all car shows. But in America, more sensitive to womens' issues-status, than most places, the shows tend to be more sober/conservative in how they use female models. The Western Europeans tend to be less conservative. The Chinese and Japanese, for some reason, tend to be flamboyant in their use of female car show models. The Fiat 500 "girls," by comparison, were pretty, but modest. You looked, whether wou wanted to, or not.

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Lexus, USA?: I know Toyota keeps claiming it "fixed" the problems with the Lexus vehicles already, but all I got was a note telling me a fix was "in the works." Why isn't Toyota addressing the Lexus gas pedal issues at the same time they address the Toyota vehicle issues? Are they not the same company anymore?

Warren Brown: The answer is lawyers and fear of class-action lawsuits. Trust me when I tell you that Toyota wants to fix this and get out of the public's attention on this matter.

In the past, Toyota has been the reigning master of "silent recalls" in the United States. It handled problems, such as sludge in fuel tanks, as "consumer satisfaction" programs. If consumers complained, the problem was fixed free of charge or at reduced cost to customer. Smart Toyota dealers did something else: They investigated the cause of the problem themselves, made the fix, and loaned their customers Toyota vehicles better than the one they owned -- at no charge to the customer. Many of those customers wound up buying the better vehicle at lower than sticker price. All wound up staying with those smart dealers. Those are the people who, justifiably I think, have rock-solid confidence in Toyota, despite the company's current recall embarrassment.

A little recall primer:

- In the United States, vehicles statutorily face federal recall only in matters of safety or possible clean-air violations. Many Toyota, Honda and Nissan defects mostly appeared to fall outside safety-clean air. As a result, customer fixes often were treated under the rubric of "consumer satisfaction." Translation: If a customer complains about the problem, check the service bulletin on the issue, and fix it at no cost or reduced cost.

- "Recall" is a legal term. Most, nearly 95 percent, recalls in the United States are "voluntary." That means the company involved "voluntarily," in the absence of a Justice Department, court-ordered recall, takes back and fixes the affected vehicles without a court fight.

Why? Court-ordered recalls hurt both the government and the company.

Consider the early-1980s fight over locking brakes in GM's X-Cars. GM won that one, but lost lots of customer support, sales and public relations advantage when it became the first company to introduce antilock brakes on affordable cars (Chevrolet).

The government spent millions pursuing GM on the locking brakes matter, only to lose considerable face in losing to GM.

Going to a federal court-ordered recall is a very dangerous step for both parties.

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Boonsboro, Md.: A comment and a question: Ten bucks for the car show, when my taxes have given these guys billions? I don't think so. Now the real question: Any plans by Ford to update the aged Ranger? Right now it seems all the choices for a compact truck are Japanese.

Warren Brown: Hello, Boonsboro:

The government bailed out Chrysler and GM. It did not baill out Ford, Toyota, Nissan, Volkswagen or any other car company displaying its wares at the Washington Auto Show.

Besides, that show is sponsored by area dealrs, specifically the Washington Area New Automobile Dealers Association with financial participation by the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), the car companies.

There is very little demand for Ranger-type compact pickups in the United States. As a result, U.S. companies tend to invest relatively little money in their improvement. Asian companies, by comparison, serve original maerkets where there is high demand for those models. Makes it easier for them to sell updated models here.

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Montgomery Village, Md.: Warren re; Kensington's needs for a van. Yes, you have a family of five now with one headed off to college next year. Then you will most often be a family of four. The trips to and from college can be handled by renting a van for a couple of days per year. Much cheaper over the long haul, using a lot less gas the other 355-360 days per year. Most families really DON'T need a van every day. Just a thought.

Warren Brown: A good thought, Montgomery Village. But, also try this: Get a smaller van or crossover utility vehvicle. Many good ones are available. Check Edmunds.com. Kbb.com, Autobytel.com, or Cars.com, the latter an affiliate of The Washington Post.

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Noticeably missing: A couple of exhibits were noticeably missing (mainly the gas guzzlers): 1 - Land Rover, 2 - Hummer, 3 - Jeep demonstration area that was always so popular. Any reason for this?

Warren Brown: Yes:

Land Rover is now owned by Tata of India. Tata knows little about the DC car show. But it does know that official Washington frowns on big, expensive, gas-thirsty SUVs. And it knows that Land Rover is a relatively weak seller in this area.

. Hummer has been sold, or is in the process of being sold, to a Chinese company that wants Hummer for its own reasons.

. We're still in a recession. The emphasis, now, as evidenced by auto shows worldwide this car-show season, is on "green motoring." Neither of the vehicls you cited is green.

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Potomac, Md: Well, so now we have more proof that Toyota is just another rar builder. Warren, do you think this will help wake people up to the fact that the quality supposedly heaped on them, -- Honda, etc. -- is just a sham? That the end-product is really just a collection of parts actually made by a bunch of subcontractors elsewhere? That the manufacturers really are just end-line assemblers of this collection?

Personally it's more proof to me why we need to support the U.S. manufacturers, especially in this day where American manufacturing really needs a boost and put the word out that yes, America DOES produce quality.

Warren Brown: Toyota/Honda quality is quite real. But, as any look at recall rates and consumer satisfaction campaigns will tell, it's over-hyped by U.S. media that usually pummel U.S. car companies for mistakes large and small, while giving a pass to most Asian car companies and treating European automakers, often unfairly, in much the manner that it treats GM. Media reps will have to look at themselves, investigate their historical coverage in these matters, and figure that one out.

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Manhattan, Kan.: Hi, Warren. As always, love your articles and these chats! I was buoyed to read that GM decided to sell Saab to Spyker and was curious to know your impression on the upcoming Saab 9-5. From all signs, it looks like it could be a contender.

Warren Brown: It could be a contender, Manhattan. But here's oping that Spyker does not turn the future Saab into a manufacturer of, for most of us, prohibitively expensive automobiles.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Good morning! I made it to the show on Saturday amid snowfall (thank you, Metro) and was a bit surprised: The floorspace seemed dominated by SUVs and poorly-named crossovers. If I'm over six feet tall and cannot see the roof of your "crossover" then I'm inclined to class it instead as an SUV, with all the baggage that implies (top-heavy, not fun to drive on pavement, poor gas mileage, etc). Nice to see Cadillac make a true wagon to combat those impressions; would be nicer still if the C-pillar didn't inflict a huge blind spot.

Also, no Kia Rondo. The most practical hauler Korea's ever exported and it didn't make an appearance? Odd. That said, I was surprised by the comfort and utility of the Nissan Cube. Still not sure I could handle owning something that quirky, but it felt like a four-fifths-scale Element -- in a good way. Ingress/egress were like sitting down at a desk rather than the contortions I had to suffer getting into most of the other cars at the show.

Warren Brown: "Crossover" is little but a fashionable term for "station wagon." Many of the models on display at the show, I'm thinking Subaru Forester, Mazda CX-7, and Kia Sorento in the often-bought mid-size catgory, perform those wagon duties admirably. And all three of the models cited in this response are great long-distance runners. Cadillac has been smart enough to offer a true wagon, the CTS Wagon, along with a more fashionable "crossover," the SRX. Both serve the same purpose -- hauling people and stuff. But here's betting that a style-conscious buyer takes more models of the SRX.

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Martinsburg, W. Va.: My husband and I attended the show and in past years where we spent the entire day, we finished this year's show in three hours. Hyundai didn't show their Azera, and we did not see Mitsubishi or Suzuki there. I think the entire show could have been on the lower level. It is also disappointing that Ford and Chevy always seem to show their biggest trucks and never bring just a basic cab truck. We loved the Hyundai Genesis. Although smaller, it was still a good show.

Warren Brown: Thanks, Martinsburg:

In my opinion, this was one of the best organized shows ever. Unlike Tier 1 intrnational shows, DC still remains a largely dealer sponsored show. That being the case, Suzuki is one of Japan's smallest car companies, if not the smallest. It certainly is one of the lowest-selling Japanese models in the United States. There are, by my count, four Suzuki dealerships in the Washingon area (Fitzgeral Auto Mall Annapolis, Fitzgerald's Wheaton Jerry's Chevrolet-Suzuki in Leesburg, and Stohlmann's Volkswagen-SUzuki). I think Fitzgerald's Annapolis group did have a Suzuki sedan on display.

As for trucks:

All major car companies exhibiting at the show offered trucks. And all major manufacturers at the show, downstairs in Halls A, B & C, participated in the Advanced Technology Superhighway, displayed an array of plug-in electrics, gas-hybrids (including some GM trucks), lithium battery-powere all electrics, CNG (compresed natural gas)cars, et cetera.

Trucks will remain a major part of the car business. In fact the best-selling vehicle in the United Stats is, as it has been for the last 25 years or so, the Ford F-Series pickup. Pickups, like most of America, are working class -- but not well-recieved in Wall Street's Manhattan, or national policy-making Washington, D.C.

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Bethesda, Md.: Warren, did you get to see the Coda? Do you think it will actually be released in 2010?

Warren Brown: Yes and No.

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Warren Brown: Thank you for joing us for this special edition of Real Wheels. Thank you for producing, Delece.

Please join us Friday.

Lunchtime, or past it, Ria.

Drive carefully, everybody.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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