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Warren Brown
Washington Post columnist
Friday, February 5, 2010; 11:00 AM

Washington Post cars columnist Warren Brown was online Friday, February 5, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the auto industry. Plus, he gave purchase advice to readers. Brown has covered the cars industry for The Washington Post since 1982.

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The transcript follows.

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Anonymous: "Testifying before a Capitol Hill panel on Wednesday morning, LaHood told drivers of recalled Toyotas to stop driving them immediately and take them to a dealer. When the news was reported moments later, shares of Toyota stock plunged 7 percent, erasing $3 billion of company value. LaHood backed off his statement later, saying instead that if Toyota owners have doubts about their cars, they should take them to a dealer."

DUHHH?! Isn't that a bit redundant after we, NOW, know at least 19 people are dead from the criminal acts committed by Toyota Executives over the last 5 years. Anyone who owns a Toyota that is one of those "re-called" should take heed from what we already know and not drive it, or allow anyone they care for to drive it, until it is repaired properly. Go get a rental car and charge it to Toyota; and if rental companies are stuck with Toyota products -- they should ground them as well. If anyone was watching the Today Show this morning and saw the woman describe how her mother, Mrs. Alberto, was killed when her Toyota Camry accelerated to 80 Miles Per Hour on a residential street and hit a tree -- you would agree. Thankfully, there was not a group of children walking along and happened to be in the path of the run-away Toyota Camry. At 80 MPH, they would have all been killed or maimed; not just this mother and grandmother. Most states require a yearly safety inspection and it is beyond me that the Department of Motor Vehicles has not stepped up and forbid these dangerous vehicles to be on "our" streets and highways.

Warren Brown: Dear anonymous:

Your note contains several assumptions that may or may not be true, especially assumptions of criminal intent. At the moment, Toyota's recall remains voluntary--as opposed to court-ordered. There have been no allegations of criminality. Toyota should be treated like anyone else in our judicial system--innocent of criminal intent, even with admitted error, until proven guilty.

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Ford; Long-Term Quality: Off the topic of Toyota, I'm thinking about trading in my 03 bug for a new Ford Fusion Hybrid. However, the long-term quality horror stories of Ford scare me. I know the FFH won a whole bunch of awards and is consistently rated super-high in initial quality across awards, but what do we know about the "new" Ford in the long-term?

Warren Brown: Ford's "long-term horror stories" are mostly just that--stories, often told by people who have never driven a Ford, or driven one in lately.

Ford and its domestic siblings, GM and Chrysler, went through an unfortunate period--late 1960s through mid-1990s--in which they all pursued profit and market share at the expense of their customers. That generation of harm wrought a generation of opprobrium, from which they are still struggling to emerge.

Toyota should take heed. It has made many of the same mistakes...with similar results.

Bottom line: The customer rules. You forget the customer, you lose...big.

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Rockville, Md.: Hi Warren,

I have owned Honda products exclusively since 1975 and with 100K miles on my 2005 Acura TL (6 speed manual) I have started looking at my next purchase. I'm about your age and 6" 5". I "tried on" a new TSX and found the head room a bit lacking because of a thicker sunroof. What else should I be looking at that would be about that size, sporty, with a 4-cylinder and manual tranny? A Mazda 3? A Speed 3? A Jetta?

Thanks.

Warren Brown: We also think alike. The Mazda3 was the first thing to come to my mind. That was followed by the Volkswagen CC Sport and VW Jetta TDI---for starters.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you think there is a possibility of the Toyota recall extending to other car companies? I heard that investigators are trying to pin down which companies the supplier of the accelerator supplied parts to. By way of background, my grandfather had a similar acceleration problem on his 2006 Honda Accord.

Warren Brown: Yes, Washington, possibly. The modern world of automobile manufacturing greatly relies on same-source suppliers to reduce costs. But let's not rush to blame the suppliers. Although producing for rival companies, same-source suppliers often manufacture to the exact specification, design, material and price requirements of the original equipment manufacturer. A lot can go wrong in that matrix, as things often do. But yours is a logical, and possibly correct conclusion.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Mr. Brown:

You pointed out that several of the missing vendors at the D.C. Auto Show were not big sellers in D.C. or were gas hogs, both of which was correct.

Can you explain the absence of Infiniti? Certainly they're a big seller, not usually considered gas hogs. I was surprised.

Warren Brown: Yes.

Infiniti is a wholly owned subsidiary of Nissan, which, this year, has pulled out of many regional auto shows (such as the DC show) to save money. Nissan also had no manufacturer-sponsored exhibit, unless I somehow missed it, at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

These are lean times. GM, for example, has vaulted from the annual National Automobile Dealers Association Show, an often expensive venue for exhibitors. GM is trying to save money, avoid dealer anger stemming from the manufacturer's decision to eliminate many of its US dealerships, and avoid being accused of spending money to party with dealers. Taxpayers who own 64 percent of GM would neither understand nor appreciate spending money that way.

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Fortaleza, Brazil: I have seen NO news about Toyota's woes here. Do the problems involve just cars built in North America? As far as I know, Toyotas sold down here are either built domestically or, in a few cases (e.g., RAV4), imported from Japan.

Warren Brown: Toyota probably uses different suppliers, with possibly different product specifications to build in your country. But no one really knows, or has really explained, exactly what is causing the acceleration and braking problems. We'll see.

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Bethesda, Md.: Hi Warren, my wife and I have a third car -- an 1989 Volvo 245 "brick" wagon (driven maybe 1000 miles per year). It is a great car and we have no troubles with it despite it having over 200,000 miles. We have two small children and have no troubles with them either. The wife has an AWD Toyota Highlander and I have a Pontiac G8 GXP, the latter of which is not good in the snow to say the least. I am considering selling the Volvo and getting something of the 4x4 variety and better in the inclement weather (and with more room), such as an older (2004) Ford Expedition or Lincoln Navigator. These cars typically sell for $11,000 - $15,000. Will you please talk me out of this? I am sure I will regret getting rid of the Volvo, but don't need four cars at the moment. Thanks,

Warren Brown: Hello, Bethesda:

Winter is a season. In our mid-Atlantic region, it normally is a relatively short, mild season. The Ford Expedition and, to a certain extent, the Explorer guzzle gas fall, winter, spring and summer. It doesn't make sense to pay a four-season price for a dubious one-season benefit.

If the Volvo truly is safe to drive, keep it and shod it with proper snow tires. Summer camp costs money. And let's not even discuss private school or college tuition.

Looking for more space and all-wheel-drive traction at a reasonable price? Check the many crossover-utility- vehicle offerings at www.thecarconnection.com,www.edmunds.com, www.autobytel.com, or www.cars.com, the latter an affiliate of The Washington Post.

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Falls Church, Va.: Setting aside the engineering questions, why has Toyota's public relations about their problems been so bad? Communication with the public has been sparse, fragmentary, and often second hand from dealers. One reason LaHood's comments caused such a panic was because Toyota failed to get out a consistent, forthright message first. The company seems to be a step behind events again and again.

Warren Brown: Here's the deal:

Toyota, now and then, like everyone else, has made manufacturing goofs. But unlike everyone else, especially unlike the domestic manufacturers, Toyota was given a pass on its mistakes by a doting media--the whole biased business about Toyota making cars that people want and domestic manufacturers making cars that no one wants (as if the people putting out that nonsense never paid attention to annual sales or market share).

With that institutional bias, in many ways bolstered by our federal government (read some of the transcripts from congressional hearings on the auto industry bailout), it was easy for Toyota's public relations people to wave the good-faith banner and shoo a less-than-inquiring media and federal regulatory force away.

But the truth, or some semblance of it, was bound to hold sway. Check out ToyotaProblems.com, carComplaints.com, myCarstatistics [it may be myCarStats].com, all of which are sites where disgruntled Toyota owners over the years have voiced complaints--from transmission problems to scrathes--about their Toyota vehicles.

Afterwards, go to www.nhtsa.dot.gov and look at Toyota list of defects investigation, recalls, service bulletins, and consumer satisfaction campaigns.

Especially, study the last two with this in mind:

A recall" is statutory. That means the government exercises its power of the judiciary to force a manufacturer into court. If the government prevails in that matter, the manufacture is ordered, by federal fist, to fix what the government says is broken, or to remove the product from the marketplace.

There have been very, very few ordered recalls. Why? They are messy, costly. If the government loses, the Justice Dep. gets egg on its face. If the manufacturer wins, the manufacturer loses anyway. Months of bad publicity aren't good for sales. And those hot-shot defense attorneys employed by the manufacturer aren't cheap. I think they bill by the second.

Why didn't you hear about those consumer complaints against Toyota? The say answer is that those complaints, although a royal pain in the buttocks, were neither safety nor emissions related--the only two recallable items.

So, Toyota, the master of silent recalls, handled those matters via "service bulletins" and "consumer satisfaction" campaigns.

Essentially, it worked like this: If customers complained about the problem item, fix it free of charge or at reduced cost. Make the customer feel as if you've done him or her a great favor. Toyota was good at that.

Anyway, an estimated 96 percent of "recalls" are voluntary, such as the one we now have with Toyota in the United States.

Bottom line:

Perhaps if the general U.S. media had treated Toyota the same way it treated GM, Ford and Chrysler--jumping on those three for any error or perceived error, large or small--perhaps then Toyota wouldn't find itself in the position it finds itself today.

As I've often said in this space and elsewhere: Everybody makes mistakes. God did not anoint one race, nation, or car manufacturer "infallible genius." Your failure today, properly acknowledged and handled, can be the tool of you resurrection tomorrow. In short, it's easy to be humbled, Toyota. Embrace humility for the gift that it is.

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Warren Brown: Thank you all for joining us today. I will answer as many Toyota questions as possible by Tuesday of next week. Thank you, Sakina, for producing. My best wishes for Master Ibrahim.

Lunch time , Ria. Actually, considering the weather, you should go home.

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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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