Toyota's meltdown has led thousands of car buyers to cross the brand off their shopping lists and has sent the company's vaunted image into free fall.
"The last time we saw something like that was when Southwest had to ground its entire fleet in 2008," said Ted Marzilli, managing director of BrandIndex Service, a New York market research firm. "We see Toyota on par or even greater than that."
Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. says it expects to lose 80,000 sales this year because of its escalating safety crisis. Market researchers paint an even gloomier picture as the bad news piles up.
Brand experts say purchase intent is shrinking and fewer shoppers are researching Toyotas. Assessing the continuing impact is hard until the barrage of new revelations eases, but early signs are grim for Toyota.
An online poll by Kelley Blue Book showed purchase consideration for the Toyota brand fell by 20 percent after the recent recall, dropping it from first-place to third behind Chevrolet and Ford.
January U.S. sales for Toyota and Scion dropped 19 percent in a rising market, even though the sales suspension of eight models affected only the last five days of the month.
Toyota dealers play down the problems.
"Business is better than I thought it would be," said Earl Stewart, a Toyota dealer in North Palm Beach, Fla. "I'm pleasantly surprised."
So is dealer Gordon Stewart, no relation, who said his Alabama Toyota dealership sent out 300 recall letters to customers but had only 12 responses through Friday.
And company executives are talking optimistically.
"Dealers are telling me consistently there is minimal to no effect on our business," said Bob Carter, Toyota Division's general manager. "Most of our consumers are confident in the brand, and many are just delaying their purchases."
Current Toyota owners may be easier to appease than buyers the company is trying to conquest, branding experts say. That could hurt Toyota's growth prospects.
Marzilli of BrandIndex says the company's poll data show Toyota's image has fallen faster than any other brand he remembers in any industry -- worse than General Motors' and Chrysler's brands when the automakers asked for a taxpayer bailout.
Indeed, Toyota just can't get out of the news. On Jan. 21, the company recalled 2.3 million vehicles to repair accelerator pedals, and five days later it suspended U.S. sales and production of eight models.
The stories keep popping up: an expanded recall, congressional investigations, and last week a separate investigation of the popular Prius hybrid after allegations of brake problems. On Friday, Kelley Blue Book said it dropped Toyota used-car values 1 to 3 percent and warned of future declines of 4 to 5 percent if the issue drags on.
"The longer it's in the news, the greater the damage to the perception of Toyota," said Lincoln Merrihew, of brand consulting firm Compete Inc. in Boston. "The potential toll is massive."
January sales may have been just a taste of things to come. The recalls cost retailers 20,000 deals last month, Carter said.
"Our sales results were 23 percent below our internal target," Carter said.
After finishing 2009 as the No. 1 brand with a 14.3 percent market share, Toyota saw its January share plunge to 11.5 percent.