The Upside Of The Toyota Recall Debacle

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

Toyota has been reeling from the public relations fallout of tag-team recalls affecting millions of its vehicles, including the best-selling Camry sedan and Prius hybrid.

But does this mean Toyota vehicles are bad cars?

Not necessarily.

And, they may be very good buys these days — which is something to keep in mind.

First, let’s put things in context:

The recall reality is less severe than the non-stop media coverage might lead you to believe. Toyota sells more than 400,000 Camrys every year; millions of these cars on the road. But the number of specific complaints involving Camrys (and other Toyota models) is literally a fraction of this number. Accidents attributed to problems such as sticking gas pedals/unwanted acceleration number fewer than 100; serious and injuries (and deaths) under 25.

This isn’t to minimize the fact that some people have had problems; but the fact is most people — more than 99 percent of Toyota owners, to be precise — have not had problems.

Millions upon millions of them.

This is true of almost all recalls. Even the really alarming ones that still echo through history — such as the Exploding Pintos of the 1970s. Do you recall how many people actually died?


How many Pintos were recalled? In excess of 1.5 million.

You do the math.

Again, this isn’t to say the Pinto didn’t have a design defect (it did) or that it wasn’t potentially dangerous (it was). But the point here is that the actual risk of any given Pinto driving being immolated or even injured as a result of this defect was extremely low — on the order of fractions of a percent.

With the Toyotas, the problem is even less potentially risky since the defect (sticky gas pedals/unwanted acceleration) is something the driver can easily deal with should it arise: If the car suddenly speeds up or won’t slow down because of unwanted acceleration, put the transmission in neutral. This will disconnect the racing engine from the drive wheels; the car physically cannot “accelerate” once this is done. The engine won’t be damaged (electronics will keep it from over-revving) and you will be able to slow/stop the car safely.

The relative handful of people who have been in accidents or injured as a result of unwanted acceleration were apparently never taught to do this. Had they been taught, it is likely the number of actual accidents involving Toyota vehicles would have been even smaller — and the number of injuries next to nil.

So, yes, there’s a potential issue with some Toyota vehicles. But, bottom line, it is extremely unlikely that your Toyota will suddenly accelerate on its own. And if it does, you can easily and safely deal with it by popping the transmission into neutral.

A potential hassle? Sure. But a very small potential hassle. And one that’s not necessarily dangerous, either — if you remember the part about just putting the gearshift lever into neutral.

On the other hand, you will almost certainly be able to buy a new Toyota for less than MSRP sticker — or negotiate a sweetheart deal on a lease. Very possibly, a lot less. Or an even sweeter deal on a lease than you might have ever thought possible.

Just three months ago, Toyota dealers were asking — and getting — full MSRP sticker, plus some more, on popular models like the Prius. Toyota rarely, if ever, offered significant financial incentives such as the thousand-of-dollars cash-back offers commonly advertised by American automakers like GM and Chrysler. They didn’t have to. Toyotas were popular — and accordingly, pricey.

And much of this was driven by perception, not reality. People believed Toyotas were better-built and more reliable than, say, GM cars. But much of this was smoke and mirrors. It’s not that Toyotas are bad cars; not by any means. But they’re not significantly better (or worse) than GM cars, if you go by the actual facts on the ground.

Now the shoe is on the other foot — and it’s Toyota that’s desperate to clear out fleets of unsold cars taking up space on dealership lots (and costing the dealers a fortune in monthly loan/interest charges). People now view Toyotas with suspicion, even though the Toyotas on the lot today are just as “good” as the Toyotas on the lot six months ago — when dealers were charging (and getting) full sticker price for them.

This means you, the buyer, are finally in the catbird seat — if you’re in the market for a new Toyota.

And there’s no reason you shouldn’t be — unless you just don’t like Toyotas.


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