As Death Toll Mounts, Toyota Vows to Win Back Customers

Scrutiny of Toyota Motors (TM) has intensified amid rising complaints of fatalities believed to have been caused by unintended acceleration. The reported toll now stands at 34 -- up from 21 in late January -- the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Monday, citing new data from the public alleging Toyota cars were responsible for the deaths. In addition, 22 people have reportedly been injured as a result of the acceleration problems.The latest round of bad news for the company comes as it plans an ambitious advertising campaign to stem sales losses. On Monday, Toyota officials met with dealers, apologizing for the problems and floating ideas about extended warranties and discounts to bring shoppers back into showrooms.

"We're a quality brand. We stumbled. I'll say 'I'm sorry,' and I truly believe that," said Don Esmond, senior vice president of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., after meeting with some 300 dealers, USA Today reported. Dealers appeared largely receptive, willing to stand behind the brand.

In the U.S., the recall of Toyota vehicles for unintended acceleration in several models and braking problems in three 2010 models now totals more than 7.5 million. About 2.3 million cars were recalled in late January for unintended acceleration attributable to gas pedals that could stick, while 5.2 million have been recalled since last fall to fix accelerator pedals that could get jammed on floor mats. Last week, Toyota recalled 7,300 2010 Camry four-cylinder sedans for a problem that could cause brake fluid to leak, impeding braking performance, shortly after a recall of 155,000 2010 Prius and Lexus HS250h hybrid vehicles for unresponsive brakes in certain situations.

Production Shutdowns

With consumer confidence in the company and its products waning, Toyota said Tuesday it will stop production at two U.S. plants for a total of 14 days between late February and early April to counter falling sales of Camry, Avalon, Tundra and other models, attributable to consumer concern about sticky gas pedals.

Toyota's Georgetown, Ky., site will close for four days, while its San Antonio plant will close for 10 days, according to Reuters, citing a report in Japan's Chunichi Shimbun newspaper. A Toyota spokeswoman in Tokyo told Reuters the company was checking the report.

This follows an earlier production halt Toyota implemented when it announced its recall of 2.3 million cars for sticky gas pedals late last month. Production resumed Feb. 8, as planned. Sales of affected vehicles were also halted, contributing to a 16% drop in January sales, to the lowest level in a decade. About 500,000, or 22%, of vehicles with the problem have been repaired thus far, Toyota said Monday. The fix involves placing a postage-stamp-size shim between two parts, to eliminate the friction that causes the pedal problems.

What Will Akio Toyoda Say?

With a rising number of deaths allegedly linked to unintended acceleration, Toyota chief executive Akio Toyoda will likely face even harsher criticism from lawmakers when he and other Toyota officials eventually testify before Congress. Toyoda was due to appear in Washington last week, but the hearings were postponed when two mammoth winter storms hit Washington and the East Coast.

Toyoda has planned a briefing Wednesday in Tokyo to report on the progress of the Prius brake recall. No doubt industry watchers, lawmakers and others will be keen to hear what the Toyota chief has to say. Many believe Toyota has dragged its feet far too long in acknowledging problems and implementing fixes. CEO Toyoda needs to move beyond the numerous apologies the company has delivered in recent days and affirm its commitment to quality and its customers.
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