It came to me at the gas pump. The beneficiary of expense-report largesse was a Toyota Tundra, extended cab, iForce V8, 4x4 and -- on this particular tankful -- a 14-mpg gas-sucker. So the thought that came to me was, "Why does Toyota get a free pass on this stuff?"
On the passenger-side front seat was a copy of Wired magazine with a digitally enhanced hot-rod Prius on the cover, proclaiming a story by an author who evidently not only sipped the Toyota Kool-Aid but gulped gallons. Did you know that Toyota -- almost singlehandedly if you buy into this account -- will save us all from global warming and put hydrogen fuel cell cars in your garage within the decade? Some of us thought thathybrids asideToyota was busily selling mega-SUVs like the aptly named giant Sequoia and aptly nicknamed Land Crusher, not to mention designing ever-more bloated Lexi for fat cats. Fine cars, but not saviors of the earth -- at least not until Toyota makes good on its pledge to hybridize everything it makes.
For now, asked to nominate a "green" car company, most would point at Honda, where commitment runs across the entire range. Honda has just collected its third straight annual award as the "greenest automaker" from the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Meanwhile, Toyota builds a factory in Texas to make a much bigger, badder pickup than this Tundra. Yet in the general press, genuflection toward its sombrero badge has become the norm. Even radical publications that routinely rant about the evils of globalization and corporate giantism are slavering over Toyota. This is so, even though Toyota is poised to become the biggest car company on the planet bar none, supplanting the firm these same publications routinely lash as evil incarnate: General Motors.
What makes Toyota benign in their eyes is, of course, the monumental success of the Prius. As one who hailed the breakthrough and clever design of the first-generation model, I've certainly been on the Prius bandwagon. Bandwagons tend to get overloaded and race out of control in the media, though, and the victims of the rah-rah are nuance and perspective. Toyota is a big and growing global concern. It got that way by catering to consumer desires. Whether that desire is for fuel-efficient boxes or overpowered, oversized crates, it's all money in the bank. They're good at it, but why the unquestioning, near-religious fervor?
This works the other way, too. Pack journalists smell blood, so they're nipping at GM's heels. Sales got off to a slow start, and suddenly business reporters who can't tell a hybrid from a hyphen are comparing GM's woes to Toyota's success and calling for heads to roll. I called it the "piling-on effect" in a recent radio interview.
Dan Neil, Pulitzer-winning L.A. Times car writer (an ex-AutoWeek writer whom I'd never lump in among car-ignorant heathens), irritated GM enough that the company pulled its ads out of the Times. We've had similar things happen here -- with Toyota, and others. This attempt to bring pressure to bear alienates the press, generating more piling-on; it's not quite as clever as hiring private dicks to tail Ralph Nader, but close.
Not that the ink -- either in the press or the red stuff on the balance sheets -- is unearned. It's just that the GM story is no more "red" than matters Toyota are "green." Real life isn't that black-and-white.
The automotive beat is fun because the story is in constant flux. One day they're hanging Bob Lutz in effigy, the next they notice he hasn't been at GM long enough to develop new product from the ground up. A dose of Solstice might be solace; add some Sky and people might see light in the darkness. Similarly, one day we're all applauding a Prius, then Toyota rolls out a big-as-Texas truck on a day gasoline hits $3 a gallon.
Perspective requires one to look farther down the road than the bottom line on the latest quarterly sales report. I'm not holding my breath.