Traffic Jams: Toyota’s Merry Misery is Good for Car Buyers

Toyota Recall — Editorial: Aside from the obvious – that Toyota will finally fix its vehicles – the long road that is Toyota’s trail of misery is good for other reasons, as well. First of all, it gives Jon Stewart of the Daily Show plenty of material with which to deflect viewers from the other trail of tears going on in DC, namely, the Democrats’ runaway trip down a dead-end street called health care.

Bah. Politics aside, it’s a good thing that Toyota’s once golden image now looks more like a cheap tin can, because that’s exactly what it is. Their endless recall drip has recalibrated the public’s perception of the automaker, bringing it back to reality with the rest of the gang. So in case you were still clinging to the fable about Toyota’s magic, here it is: Toyota is like any other maker of cars. And maybe worse. Shocker of shockers, the Camry really isn’t all that different than the Ford Fusion, or the Chevrolet Malibu, or any other mid-size sedan available for purchase. All are built to appeal to the biggest group of buyers possible, with flavoring tossed into the design or performance of the vehicle in order to differentiate between competitors. Toyota, like the rest, take great pains to A) ensure that their vehicles are of the utmost in quality and B) make sure they make as big a profit as possible. It’s much like a dog chasing its tail: the better the quality, the more people like you, but the less you make in gravy. Finding the balance is what carmakers do, and one of the reasons why recalls and other boogeymen exist.

Automakers also make mistakes, which means cars break, and people die. Just a few years ago there was a massive recall (7 million) on Ford vehicles thanks to a faulty ignition switch; apparently the switch would short and the vehicle would burst into flames at any time. The horrific result? Entire families, asleep in their beds, never realizing that the truck they parked in their garage was on fire and ready to explode. To date, only around 3 million of these little nightmares have reportedly been fixed, so if you think Toyota gets a special ribbon for nefarious behavior, think again. Still, Toyota has pretty much filled the Gallery of Shame with their own scary recalls. Believe it or not, that’s a good thing for more than a few reasons:

1. Buying a Toyota doesn’t make you smart, buying a Ford doesn’t make you dumb

Surprise, surprise, Camrys don’t come with an express ticket to Smartsville, no matter how many times they’ve been lauded by credible publications such as Consumer Reports. To their credit, Toyota built a sterling reputation as the car company for prudent, practical people: they built plain cars that ran well for many miles. And when the time came to launch a luxury brand, they unveiled Lexus with the same careful measurement of What the People Really Want. Now they have a reputation for building cars that don’t stop. Who’s the genius now? The bottom line is that the smartest car you can buy is the one that best fits your needs and price range.

2. Don’t buy American-made

In case your brain has been addled by watching too many hours of Fox News, here’s the headline: it matters not a whit from whence a Toyota car comes. Fact is, if they’ve learned anything it’s probably NOT to trust American-made parts. Between their two suppliers of accelerator pedals, the one that worked well was Japanese – while the one currently being recalled had a good ol’ Made in the USA stamp. The point here is that it’s virtually impossible to assign quality to a country’s manufacture or assembly, unless of course there are serious concerns over regulation and mandated testing.

3. Quality vs. Quantity: nature’s ultimate balancing act

Like GM and Ford before it, Toyota’s recall blues are at least partially caused by greed. Doing anything with a emphasis on quality takes attention to detail, and that’s always best served with time. If you want to sell more cars than the Lords of Detroit, well, you have to spend less time pouring through the details and more time running the assembly line. The result of that approach is what you have today: poor quality cars that kill people.

4. Now you know why we tell you to check for recalls

If there’s a silver lining to the Toyota recall story, it’s that so many more people are now aware that recalls are a big deal, and that it’s easy to find out about ’em. We live in a golden age of information, and the Toyota recall story is a reminder that we don’t have to take the automaker’s word for the quality of their cars. Just go to the NHTSA site and look up all the technical bulletins and recall notices listed. From technical issues to price and features, there’s more disclosure and fewer surprises than ever before.

5. The romance between journalist and Toyota is over, finally

For years, The Toyota Way was trumpeted as the hallmark of automotive manufacturing. Toyota could do no wrong; they built solid vehicles that sold out on dealer lots and had a luxury line that was the envy of its class thanks to the Lexus hallmark of whisper-quiet interiors and sink-in-it leather seating. Everything they did was golden, every choice, every car, every decision. At least that’s how it seemed, thanks to endless inches of praise from the fingertips of journalists. Today those ink-stained wretches stand partially to blame for the mess, because it was their words that helped to give Toyota such a bullet-proof reputation. Skepticism is a nice party hat for journalists to wear; here’s hoping that in the future they’ll keep it on.

The best news of all is that now, Toyota will be – should be – viewed as just another automaker, one that builds vehicles that appeal to a broad swath of the public. And that people will no longer assume that because it has a Toyota badge on its snout, that their car is somehow immune to the recalls and issues all automakers suffer through. Your Camry is no better than your neighbor’s Ford — it doesn’t make you look any smarter. Research your car no matter what the make and get the information you need to make an informed decision, uncluttered by the noise of unsubstantiated claims.

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