Why Didn't the Auto Press Catch Toyota's Problems?

In an otherwise lukewarm review, Car and Driver magazine lauded the 2010 Toyota Camry for delivering "spacious comfort and a stress-free ownership experience" in its Buyer's Guide. Given the negative publicity surrounding the Japanese carmaker following reports of quality defects, which are getting aired at congressional hearing today and tomorrow, the magazine has much different view now.

"Clearly, the situation has changed," says Eddie Alterman, editor-in-chief of the Hachette Filipacchi magazine in an interview. "At the time of our writing, their reputation was intact."Toyota's (TM) reputation, of course, lies in ruins, thanks to a worldwide recall of more than 8 million vehicles for stuck accelerator pedals and assorted other issues. The automaker estimates that the recalls will cost it $2 billion through March, a figure that strikes some as conservative. In Congress today, the head of Toyota Motor U.S. operations apologized for how the company handled the safety issue.

Some Camrys from 2007-10 were among the affected models. Changing Car and Driver's ratings now isn't practical since the guide has already gone to print, Alterman says.

Suspended Recommendations

Car and Driver
was hardly alone in heaping praise on Toyota. A Motor Trend video of the 2009 Camry said there was little new to say about the best-selling Toyota because it already had garnered so many accolades. It added that the car provided a "real and a wonderfully familiar experience every time you buckle up and start the engine." A spokesman for the magazine could not immediately be reached for comment.

Consumer Reports recommended all of Toyotas it reviewed for its Best Cars, Suvs & Trucks - 2010 buyers guide, which I recently purchased. In its piece on the Camry, the guide praises it for being "roomy and quiet" with a "comfortable ride." In January, the publication suspended recommendations of recalled Toyota models. A spokesman told me that up-to-date information is on the organization's website as well as in the upcoming auto issue. Still, the 2010 Prius hybrid topped the magazine's list of picks for green cars, released today. The Prius, the best-selling hybrid, was recalled earlier this month, though the problem has been fixed.

"It would have been great if we could have caught it [early]," says Jack Fisher, a senior engineer in the automotive testing department at Consumer Reports, adding making such a finding would have been difficult to determine anyway because the scope of the Toyota problem is relatively small.

Consumer Reports, part of the nonprofit Consumers Union, collects data on about 1.4 million vehicles to assess vehicle reliability among other things. Beginning with the online version of its questionnaire in April, CU will gather additional information about subscribers' experiences with recalls.

Car and Driverrecently pointed out that every man, woman and child has about a 1-in-8,000 chance of dying in a car accident every year, and that "given the millions of cars included in the Toyota recalls and the fewer than 20 alleged deaths over the past decade, the alleged fatality rate is about one death per 200,000 recalled Toyotas. . . . So if you can muster the courage to get into a car and drive, the additional 'alleged' risk of driving a Toyota is virtually negligible."

Toyotas, though, were synonymous with quality before the recent scandal, and many in the automotive world considered them safe but dull vehicles. These publications often face claims that they're in cahoots with the automakers since they're so reliant on them for advertising dollars. Many just seemed to have had difficulty in keeping up with the constantly changing story.

Changes Coming

David Cole, of the Center for Automotive Research, says the publications would have mentioned any problems had they seen when they were reviewing Toyotas. Moreover, figuring auto defects isn't easy even when they happen in much greater frequency than they did in these cars.

Nonetheless, the Toyota controversy may lead to changes. Consumers Union today called for changes to government policies to make these infrequent but potentially deadly problems easier to catch along with increasing the budget of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Staking pit such a position in editorials may be the car magazines' next best shot at getting out in front the problem.
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