One of the challenges of being the front runner is that everyone is gunning for you. GM learned this the hard way, and Toyota is seeing it, as well. Most people have a story about their old GM or Ford vehicle with little quality problems that it seemed like the companies didn’t want to fix. Meanwhile, Toyota and Honda were perceived as the gold standard, consistently getting deserved recommended ratings from Consumer Reports as well as glowing reviews from owners.
Those word of mouth recommendations are one of the keys that helped make Toyota’s brand bulletproof when it comes to quality. But recently, Toyota has been seeing some problems that are vaguely reminiscent of the perceptions of GM, Ford and Chrysler quality as they fell from dominance.
- In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Camry and ES300 engines were having much publicized (and criticized) sludge problems which left the vehicles useless.
- Toyota has started recalling Tacoma pick-ups from the same period, for excessive rust on the frames.
- The Yaris (Belta in Europe) and Vitz subcompact are recalled for seatbelt and exhaust system defects, affecting 1.35 million vehicles worldwide
- And now, 2006 and 2007 Prius HID headlights are experiencing enough consumer complaints to draw a NHTSA investigation [PDF] in April.
This last one should be of real concern for Toyota. Toyota is in the midst of a critical launch of its third generation of the Prius. Honda is gunning for the Prius with its new Insight. So far, the Prius looks safe with very strong sales out of the gate, but these kind of little quality problems that get ignored are just the sort of problems that drove GM’s reputation in the wrong direction.
Advertising Age quoted Todd Turner, president of consultant CarConcepts, as saying Toyota should issue a service bulletin on the problem which would bring cars in for inspection before problems arise. This would be a good way to head off the problem and keep customers happy without having to issue an actual recall.
With the new Prius PHEV coming down the line soon and with Honda and GM (with the Volt) breathing down their necks, Toyota’s management can’t afford take a chance with the Prius image right now. The Prius headlight problem isn’t yet big enough to set off alarm bells, but if Toyota wants to remain the green auto leader, ignoring minor problems like this starts to look more like a roll of the dice.