Epic recall caps Toyota's annus horribilis

Published: 01 February 2010

Who'd have thought Toyota, masters of manufacturing and pioneers of Kaizen, would suffer one of the largest recalls in recent years? A furore over sticking throttle pedals in the US is forcing Toyota to recall nearly 4 million vehicles in America, 1.8m in Europe and many more elsewhere.

The root of the problem is worn accelerator pedal mechanisms which can (in isolated cases) increase friction so much that the throttle feels stiff, is slow to return or – everyone's worst nightmare – sticks open. As Mark Saylor found to his cost when his Lexus ES350's throttle stuck on, smashed into an SUV and burst into flames in summer 2009. All four occupants were killed.

It was seemingly not a one-off. US media reports claim that up to 2000 Toyota owners have complained of unintended acceleration and – this being the litigious US – lawsuits have been filed. This one could be pricey.

Toyota recall: the long-term damage

Toyota's American dealers are nervously warning of potentially 'catastrophic' consequences. Remember the Ford Firestone tyre fiasco? The scare stories about runaway Audis? The latest recall threatens to damage American consumer confidence in one of its biggest-selling brands for years to come.

Safety recalls are a notoriously sensitive area; manufacturers are desperate not to spark mass panic yet are legally obliged to rectify known faults in most markets. Recalls happen every day, but Toyota's action in America is spiralling out of control with all the ferocity of one of its runaway cars.

Did Toyota know about the problem with accelerators made by CTS Corp but refuse to act early enough? The truth is slowly coming out in the wash, and many critics in the US are rounding on Toyota's slow response and underestimation of the problem to boot. Hardly surprising coming so soon after last autumn's separate safety checks on 4.2m US Toyotas for floor mats that allegedly slipped and – you guessed it – jammed accelerators.

Are the wheels coming off Toyota?

The recall comes at the end of a turbulent year for Toyota. It's only 18 months since it overtook GM to be the world's number one car maker, but how fortunes have changed since that milestone.

In 2009 it posted its first full-year loss since 1950, with 437 billion yen ($4.3bn) of red ink ruining the balance sheet. Analysts point to a rising yen hitting profitability in export markets and the pursuit of volume over quality, ironically one of the cornerstones of the Toyota business model. Sales have been sluggish around the globe for Toyota and analysts warn it is one of the weaker operators in China, Brazil and India – the very markets that will provide growth in a stagnant, mature global marketplace.

Sounds like Akio Toyoda, president of Toyota since June 2009 and grandson of the firm's founder, has a hell of a job on his hands. Toyota's leadership in hybrid technology, expertise in the iQ miniaturisation project and supercar know-how demonstrated in the LF-A count for nothing if Toyotas aren't even reliable.

The European Toyotas affected by the recall

Thanks to its continuous improvement philosophy, Toyota has already implemented a fix to its European cars, so production has not been stopped here. But the back catalogue is affected, with 1.8m vehicles recalled:

Aygo (built between Feb 2005 – Aug 2009)
iQ (Nov 2008 – Nov 2009)
Yaris (Nov 2005 – Sep 2009)
Auris (Oct 2006 – 5 Jan 2010)
Corolla (Oct 2006 – Dec 2009)
Verso (Feb 2009 – 5 Jan 2010)
Avensis (Nov 2008 – Dec 2009)
RAV4 (Nov 2005 – Nov 2009)

Do the maths. With pricey fixes on both sides of the pond, this is going to be a very expensive headache for Toyota. Not what it needs right now.

By Tim Pollard

Editorial director of CAR's digital publishing arm. Motoring news magnet