ORLANDO, Fla. -- Security was on hand during the Toyota make meeting here on Monday, but there wasn't a peep of hostility aired toward the company during an hour-long session, dealers said.
“This is a great product and a great company,” said Sam Swope, a Toyota dealer since 1967.
With the automaker mired in controversy surrounding its recalls, some dealers thought the meeting could get contentious. But the anger was leveled at the media and the federal government, while dealers who emerged from the private session, which was marked by rounds of applause, appeared upbeat and optimistic.
“I don't have any concern about sudden acceleration,” Swope said. “I have thousands of customers but zero complaints from them. What the dealers are concerned about is the government.”
In an unusual move, Toyota invited the media to communicate with Toyota executives and some retailers afterwards.
The dealers who spoke said Toyota has been exemplary in its handling of the recalls. Many blamed the press for being sensational.
“I'm tired of all of the media onslaught,” said Bill Stringer, a dealer in St. Louis. “We're not happy. We have a very strong brand. I live and breathe this brand. My family's income is at risk.”
Paul Atkinson, who owns two stores in Texas and is chairman of the Toyota dealer council, says the negative press has hurt sales at some dealerships because some consumers don't know that Toyota stores are open. But he adds that he has fixed all customer vehicles and now is selling his full inventory.
A January recall of 2.3 million Toyota-brand vehicles in the United States addressed unintended acceleration complaints linked to sticky gas pedals in eight models.
The Prius hybrid and Tacoma pickup have since been called back for separate problems. A U.S. recall last fall covered more than 5 million Toyota and Lexus models to address floor mats that can trap accelerator pedals.
As many as 34 deaths related to unintended acceleration incidents in Toyota vehicles have now been reported to U.S. highway safety officials.
'We made some mistakes'
Bob Carter, Toyota Division general manager, said dealers are repairing 50,000 sticky pedals a day, for a total of 500,000. He said of the 112,000 units that were affected by a delivery halt, 88,000 are now fixed and back on the market.
“We have an issue here; we made some mistakes,” Carter said. He reminded the media that Toyota has always been near the top or at the top in most major studies for durability, quality and reliability. “And we have the best dealer group,” he said.
He also emphasized that “there is no problem with our electronic throttles. We have tested every scenario.”
The automaker has contended that any incidents of unwanted acceleration have resulted from either the floor mats or sticky pedals. Some skeptics say electronic failures could be the cause.
Carter said the company is studying all avenues for reaching out to customers, including longer warranties and discounts on vehicles.
Don Esmond, senior vice president for automotive operations for Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., said he apologized to dealers.
“I said I'm sorry, and we'll move on,” he said. “We're a quality brand. We stumbled a bit on the quality end, but we'll recover.”
He said dealers suggested a Web site that would allow retailers to post all customer complaints to keep the company closer to the matter.
“We're not saying we will do it, but it was a suggestion,” Esmond said.
Meantime, Neal Kuperman, owner of Rockland Toyota in Blauvelt, N.Y., said he's doing his own ad campaign to address the issue.
“I'm running full-page ads,” he said. “I sent 1.5 million e-mails to my customers telling them that we are here to support them. Yesterday, I opened for the first time ever on a Sunday.
“There are recalls all of the time,” Kuperman says, “but when the media and administration make it more than that, that makes it scary. It looks confusing to the customer. This is not good for the industry; it will affect everyone.”
Ernie Boch, Toyota's second-largest U.S. dealer, expects the automaker to come out with a strong quality message in March. He termed the current commercial an apology.
“Next they will remind people what a great company they are,” Boch said.
He also said the challenges will help Toyota. “I believe all the crap GM took made them a better company, and certainly this will make Toyota a better company”.
Toyota dealers have had a tremendous ride, he said. “I'm sure this has whacked their value -- a little -- temporarily,” he said. “But no Toyota dealer out there has anything to cry about.”