TOKYO -- How’s this for a sign of the times?
Toyota recalls more than 6 million vehicles in the United States, and it takes President Akio Toyoda five months to visit the epicenter of its global quality crisis in person and apologize.
Toyota recalls 75,000 vehicles in China -- less than 1 percent of its global recall total -- and the family scion is there within weeks bowing to the public at a press conference in Beijing.
Few things better underline China’s rising star as the world’s biggest auto market than Toyota Motor Corp.’s prompt effort to shore up its reputation in the Middle Kingdom.
Granted, Toyoda’s visit to China comes after appearing before U.S. Congress and is part of a global road show meant to win back consumer trust. But his stop in Beijing underscores the clout of Chinese consumers -- not just with the world’s top automaker, but all automakers.
Consider the status of lowly Europe. Toyota only dispatched Vice Chairman Kazuo Okamoto to make a perfunctory appearance at the Geneva motor show and repeat Toyoda’s apology.
By comparison, China got royal treatment from the grandson of the company’s founder.
“I flew directly from the U.S. because I wanted to explain the situation to the Chinese people as soon as possible,” Toyoda said during his March 1 press conference in the Chinese capital.
Toyoda, who served as head of his company’s China operations, is especially attuned to the market next door. He and his executives were appalled by a sudden drop in February sales as Chinese customers reacted to the global recall crisis, Japanese media reports say.
Toyota dealers in China are resorting to discounts up to 10 percent to move cars, and order cancellations are on the rise, according to Japanese newspapers.
Privately, Toyota executives worry about the extra risk of being a Japanese company in a country that still harbors palpable animosity for being invaded and occupied by Japanese troops during World War II. Boycotts against Japanese brands in China sometimes turn violent.
Yet Toyota’s January car sales in China still surged 53 percent to 73,000 units.
And the company is sticking to its target of selling 800,000 vehicles in China this year. That would represent a 13 percent increase over 2009 and outpace overall market growth of 10 percent expected by most analysts. A rising tide lifts all boats, but Toyota has struggled.
Last year, total vehicle sales in China jumped 53 percent to 13.6 million units. But Toyota’s sales climbed only 21 percent to 709,000 units, capturing just 5 percent of the market.
In the world’s top auto market, Toyota largely trails rivals such as General Motors and Volkswagen. If it wants to stay in the game, courting the Chinese is the first move to make.