I'm not sure how much money Toyota is paying Steve St. Angelo, but for his sake, I hope it's a lot. Trying to aggressively remedy its recent/ongoing quality woes, Toyota formed a North American Quality Task Force at the end of March, putting St. Angelo'”one of the company's top engineering and manufacturing execs'”at its head.
And just two week later, he's up to his knees (at least) in another mess. As most people know by now, a certain high-profile consumer advocacy organization recently dropped the "do not buy" bomb on Toyota's Lexus GX 460 sport utility, leading the automaker to suspend sales of the product.
The basic problem: Claims that the SUV's electronic stability control system didn't engage properly during testing, creating the potential for a rollover accident in certain driving situations.
Now, even though Lexus has only sold a small number of GX's so far this year, this problem is sure to have a big impact on Toyota's standing in the U.S. For one thing, the GX was completely redesigned for the 2010 model year and it was off to an impressive start considering its segment.
Big body-on-frame luxury SUVs aren't exactly tearing up the charts, but Lexus sold about 4,800 GX's through March, a huge increase of nearly 185 percent compared to the same period in 2009. So we're talking about a high performer here, albeit in a niche segment of the industry. But we're also talking about the Toyota 4Runner, because that vehicle rides on the same platform as the Lexus. 4Runner sales were up about 139 percent in March and were building some significant momentum.
It's true the 4Runner didn't exhibit the same problem as the GX when the former was tested under the same circumstances as the latter, but the situation is certainly going to get people wondering. And because they might start wondering about the rest of Toyota's sport utilities, too, the automaker is doing its own testing on its entire SUV lineup.
Three other important factoids to consider: Toyota has now expanded its "stop sale" instructions for the GX to the rest of the world, which tells me the company has some serious worries about the Lexus. Additionally, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) hasn't yet put the vehicle through its own standard battery of safety tests. Given the current relationship between Team NHTSA and Toyota, I'm guessing the GX will get a wee bit of extra attention when it does get evaluated'”and I don't mean in a good way. Finally, there's the nature of the problem itself. If I had to pick one particular safety issue'”beyond another gas-pedal glitch'”that I thought could really harm Toyota, SUV rollovers would be pretty high on the list.
The Ford Explorer rollover debacle of the 1990s cost the Blue Oval billions of dollars and an untold number of customers. A Toyota replay of that fiasco, especially after the industry spent yet more billions in developing stability-control technology to prevent these incidents from occurring, would be hard for even the staunchest Toyota supporters to swallow.
On the other hand, things certainly seem to be set up for GMC and Nissan to swallow more Lexus and Toyota customers. Simply put, these brands offer the combination of features that comes closest to matching what the GX and 4Runner offer. That is, relatively staid mainstream styling and some true off-road capabilities in a big package.
The Yukon is a bit bigger than the Lexus, but GM's Professional Grade division has the Yukon buttoned down pretty well in terms of functionality, and when it wears the premium Denali trim, it stacks up excellently in terms of luxury appointments. Plus, the Yukon, including the Denali version, is available with a two-mode hybrid system good for an estimated 21 mpg in the city.
As for Nissan's popular Pathfinder, well, it's a bit thirstier at the gas pumps than the 4Runner, but those who enjoy the Toyota won't find much else to complain about in the NissanIn fact, given Toyota's recent track record, it's current GX/4Runner customers who are likely to be doing most of the complaining right about now.