Toyota vs. Detroit: How Do You Define “Win”?

The headline on the front page of yesterday’s Detroit Free Press proclaimed in a way that would be analogous to the Lions winning a football game: Mighty Toyota is slipping under weight of recalls, sales decline.

The headline on the front page of yesterday’s Detroit Free Press proclaimed in a way that would be analogous to the Lions winning a football game: Mighty Toyota is slipping under weight of recalls, sales decline. And the story by Greg Gardner opens unambiguously: “Toyota is in trouble.”

The story is predicated on the fact that in November Toyota sales were down overall. The article indicates they were down 3.3%, but according to Toyota figures, “On a raw volume basis, unadjusted for 24 selling days in November 2010, compared to 23 selling days in November 2009, TMS [Toyota Motor Sales] were down 3.2 percent compared to last year.”

0.1% notwithstanding, the fact that while industry sales in general went north (e.g., Ford up 24%; GM 21%; Chrysler 17%) while Toyota’s are mired in the negative zone indicates that the company is certainly struggling with all of the fall out that is like residual radiation from its recall and quality woes, real and imagined.

Gardner reports, for example, “Last week, Toyota recalled 650,000 Priuses to fix cooling pumps.”

While this could be an issue of semantics, according to Toyota’s statement about the 2004 to 2007 Priuses, “This customer support campaign is not a recall as Toyota has determined it is not a safety issue and the company has not received any reports of accidents or injuries related to this condition.”

But “recall” sounds more ominous, doesn’t it?

What’s more, Gardner writes, “In addition to quality woes, it must overcome a reputation for bland styling.”

That reputation has always struck me as being predicated on the fact that historically critics of Toyota couldn’t come up with anything else to tar the company with as regards its previous unblemished quality, durability and reliability, so they went for the subjective and attacked the styling.

T Not breakthrough, but not all that bland for when it was introduced

While I don’t think that the Camry has the cutting-edge styling of, say, the current Hyundai Sonata (a car with styling that I am not in the least bit crazy about), it is worth noting that the Sonata was introduced this year and the Camry came out in 2007. Something to be said for three years. And from a design POV, the previous generation Sonata had seemingly more to do with the design of an earlier generation Honda Accord than anything particularly contemporary for its time. Go back to the products that were being put out by Ford (the previous Fusion), Chrysler (Sebring) and GM (previous generation Malibu)when the current Camry was introduced, and it is equally fair to say that (1) the Camry more than holds its own as regards styling and (2) the only one that was doing anything of particular interest back then was. . .Mazda (Mazda6).

This should not be construed as carrying Toyota’s water. But it strikes me that while it is understandable that the home-town paper would champion the home-town companies, and while it is factual that Toyota is having troubles in the market at present, there is the potential problem that some of the people at the home-town companies are going to read stories like that and figure, “Hah! we’re on a roll!” and then begin to coast.

Which is something they can ill-afford.

Here’s a data point that shouldn’t be overlooked when someone considers the “Mighty Toyota” slipping:

Here are sales of various vehicles from January through November 2010:

* Ford Fusion: 196,590

* Chevy Malibu: 187,250

* Chrysler Sebring: 37,216

* Chrysler 300: 35,613

*Honda Accord: 279,000

Hmm, looks like Honda has a considerable edge on the others, doesn’t it?

*Toyota Camry: 296,581