Rival automakers aiming to exploit Toyota's woes
By DEE-ANN DURBIN
DETROIT — In a few short weeks, Toyota has done what General Motors, Ford and other automakers have failed to accomplish for decades: Erase the perception that the Japanese automaker's cars are of much higher quality than those of its rivals.
A series of recent safety recalls — now totaling more than 8.5 million vehicles worldwide — has cracked To-yota's bulletproof reputation and given rivals an opportunity to capture some of its customers.
Toyota stumbled as industry sales are just starting to climb after the worst slump in 30 years. It's not yet clear which automakers will benefit most, but several are wooing Toyota drivers with new ads and incentives.
"The perception game has changed," said James Bell, an executive market analyst for the vehicle information company Kelley Blue Book.
According to Kelley, 27 percent of new car shoppers who were considering a Toyota before the recall are no longer interested in the brand. Nearly half of the buyers who have defected from Toyota say they may never consider the brand again. Kelley questioned 406 people before the recall and 285 after it. All were U.S. buyers who said they planned to buy a car in the next 12 months.
Ford, Chevrolet, Hyundai and Honda have made the biggest gains with those customers, Kelley Blue Book said. Sixteen percent of new-car buyers said they weren't considering Ford before the recall, but are now.
David Tompkins, vice president of analytics at Edmunds.com, said the lack of confidence also is starting to affect Lexus, Toyota's luxury brand, with the number of buyers intending to purchase the brand dropping by 25 percent in the past two weeks. Those customers are now looking at Audi, Acura and Volvo. His data is based on 3.5 million Web site visits per week.
Publicly, rivals insist they're not gloating.
"There may be an opportunity for us to get some consideration from folks that we didn't get before. We'd like to sell them our vehicles based on the merits," GM's North American president, Mark Reuss, said yesterday at the Chicago Auto Show.
At Ford, chief U.S. sales analyst George Pipas noted that CEO Alan Mulally has long admired Toyota and implemented its global production system at Ford.
But Bell said that at a recent executive-level meeting at one of Toyota's rivals, participants were grinning from ear to ear.
"GM and Ford in particular are really rubbing their hands together and saying, 'Here's our chance,' " he said.
Shortly after Toyota announced the recall of 2.3 million U.S. vehicles to address sticking accelerators, General Motors, Ford, Hyundai and some Honda dealers began offering incentives of $1,000 or more to drivers who traded in Toyotas. New TV ads from Ford say, in bold letters, "Ford quality can't be beat by Honda or Toyota." GM isn't running ads that mention Toyota, but continues its "May the Best Car Win" campaign, which has taken on new meaning after the recall.
"If someone loses, someone wins," said Natsuno Asanuma, manager of public relations at Honda Motor Co.
Homer Benavides, 37, a civil engineer in Waukegan, Ill., had arranged to buy a Toyota Sequoia sport utility vehicle before the recall. He canceled the sale after the recall and is now considering the Chevrolet Tahoe.
"Toyota has made millions of vehicles, and millions of people are driving them, but if you are the fraction of 1 percent to have a problem, you don't want to be that one person," he said. "I do like Toyota, but safety is first and foremost."