– Edward Niedermeyer is the editor-in-chief of The Truth About Cars. The views expressed are his own. –
(Paragraph 7 corrected on February 10.)
Life rarely offers easy answers to important decisions, but up until a few weeks ago, it seemed that new cars buyers simply couldn’t go wrong buying a Toyota. For decades, the Japanese automaker had built up an unmatched reputation for quality and reliability, on its way to becoming the best-selling automaker in the U.S and the top car producer worldwide. A Camry might not have been a particularly glamorous or exciting choice of vehicles, but consumers could buy one without doing a lick of research, and expect it to run reliably and efficiently for years. At least they could until a flurry of defects and recalls suddenly brought Toyota’s untouchable reputation back down to earth.
In a matter of days, Toyota’s good favor in the eyes of consumers has been replaced with suspicion and doubt. Having first ignored reports of unintended acceleration in its vehicles, Toyota then blamed floor mats before finally recalling some eight million gas pedals worldwide. When a brake software problem on the Prius hybrid emerged within days of the gas pedal recall, and Toyota’s leadership moved slowly to get in front of the burgeoning PR nightmare, the automaker’s spotless image suddenly found itself in shreds.
This rapid reversal of Toyota’s fortunes indicates that its reputation as an unquestionably logical choice in car brands was already wearing thin. Having refined the most efficiency and quality-focused manufacturing system in the industry by the late 1980s, Toyota responded to currency fluctuations in the early 90s by cutting costs on the design-end of the business.
According to the company’s logic at the time, a “lean” manufacturing operation couldn’t afford to build “fat” or “overquality” products in the face of intense pressure on profitability.