Published January 14, 2015
Responding to two recalls and facing the prospect of another one, Toyota dealers across the country were repairing thousands of cars Saturday, the first weekend day that many drivers had a chance to take action.
Although many dealers expected a long line of customers, most drivers seemed far from panicked.
Delwyn Wright, a 51-year-old truck driver, had heard about Toyota's troubles on the news but got the accelerator on his wife's Camry fixed Saturday after it was suggested by a dealer in Columbia, S.C., where Wright had taken the car for an oil change.
"We ain't never had no problem with it," Wright said.
Toyota recalled 2.3 million cars in eight models, including the top-selling Camry, on Jan. 21 and stopped selling the vehicles five days later because the gas pedals can get stuck in a depressed position. But it took until the past week for Toyota to mail parts to dealers and train technicians, making this the first weekend many Toyota owners could seek repairs.
At the same time, dealers are repairing 5 million Toyotas from an earlier recall because their floor mats could jam the pedals, causing unintended acceleration. And the possibility of another recall looms — this time, for the company's celebrated Prius hybrid.
Even so, at Manhattan Toyota, a dealership on the borough's West Side, there were more potential Toyota buyers in the showroom on Saturday than car owners waiting for their gas pedal to be modified. A giant sign in the window read: "We have 200 cars not affected by the recall."
Sales manager Chris Mignano said the dealership started doing the pedal modifications on Friday, completing work on about 30 cars by Saturday morning. Six extra technicians were hired to handle the repairs.
Mignano said every customer who called has been given an appointment and a quick primer on how to stop their vehicle — apply the brakes and put the car in neutral — if a problem should occur.
One customer, Margot Hammond, called the repair "very easy — no problems."
Rob Gregory of Rochester Toyota in Rochester, Minn., had a steady stream of customers needing gas pedal repairs Saturday, but lines were never more than three or four cars long. He said it took technicians about 15 minutes to install a steel shim in the gas pedal assembly to stop the pedal from staying down.
Even though the fix is quick and simple, dealers say they're confident that the repair will stop the gas pedal problems.
"I've been with Toyota 20 years, I feel confident with Toyota," said Bruce Winokur, general sales manager at Toyota Center in Columbia, S.C. "As long as I've been with them, everything they've done in the past with issues, they have done the right way."
Regulators aren't so sure. The U.S. Department of Transportation is reviewing whether Toyotas and other vehicles may have a wider problem of electronic interference causing acceleration and other unintended actions.
The government is also investigating more than 100 reports that the brakes on the 2010 Prius hybrid appeared to fail momentarily when the car is driving on bumpy roads. Toyota blames a software glitch and says it has already fixed vehicles in production. But it's still deciding how to handle repairs on 270,000 Priuses that were sold in the U.S. and Japan starting last year. The company could announce a full-fledged safety recall or simply ask owners to bring their vehicles in for repairs, since the brakes aren't failing completely.
In a letter to U.S. dealers Friday, Toyota said it will announce its plan for the Prius in the coming days. It also told dealers that a new, 60-second television ad will begin airing Sunday that admits Toyota hasn't been living up to its reputation for quality and safety. The ad says the company is working hard to repair the recalled vehicles and restore trust.
Toyota needs to win over people such as Laura Benin, 34, from the New York borough of Queens.
She owns a 2009 silver Toyota Corolla. It was her first car, and she chose it because she wanted something reliable. After hearing of the recall she was frustrated that her dealer didn't seem to know how to handle it. And almost two weeks went by "before I got any kind of communication from Toyota," she said.
"If I had to do it over again, I would not be looking at a Toyota," she said.
Still, there are plenty of customers like Mike Chuba, a 53-year-old chemical engineer from Wrightstown, N.J., who doesn't seem upset. He hasn't had accelerator problems on his 2009 Camry and doesn't plan to get his car repaired until the end of February, at his next scheduled oil change.
"It runs extremely well. I've had no problems with it and it's good value for the money," he said. "I plan to drive it until it falls apart."