February sales results will be reported in the next day or two, and in a normal year, one would expect the Toyota Camry to be among the big winners. The best-selling car in the U.S. last year, Toyota's mid-size sedan still offers better gas mileage than a non-hybrid Ford Fusion, is less expensive than a Chevrolet Malibu and is both more fuel efficient and less expensive than a Nissan Altima.
It's true that there's tough competition from the South Koreans '” in the form of the just-released 2011 Hyundai Sonata '” but I have to wonder if the Hyundai's over-the-top styling will be too much for the rather staid tastes of most Toyota buyers.
And the Sonata has already been recalled, just days after its launch, for a problem with its door latches. In a normal year, this would be a time for Toyota and its customers to sit back smugly, confident that the company had turned aside another challenger, while the automotive press would be wondering if the Sonata's bungled launch meant that Hyundai had been focusing too much on getting new products to the market and not enough on quality.
Of course, 2010 has already turned into anything but a normal year, especially for Toyota. The latest news is from veteran automotive journalist Michelle Krebs, whose findings put the Camry on a list that has nothing to do with sales. Krebs and her team pored over data from the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA), covering the years from 2001-2010, and came up with some interesting news: When you rank vehicles by the absolute number of consumer complaints for unintended acceleration, the Camry is at the head of the pack with nearly 58 percent more complaints then the next vehicle. Which was another Toyota. In fact, nine of the top 12 vehicles on the list are from either Toyota or Lexus.
What will be especially interesting is whether a politician or two picks up on these results in the near future. It's certainly no sure thing, as I've noticed an unsurprisingly large disconnect between our beloved political representatives and the perhaps oxymoronically termed "real-world auto industry" since the Congressional hearings began.
Much of the happenings on Capitol Hill were right out of Billy Shakespeare's playbook ("much sound and fury, signifying nothing"), although I have to give credit to Congressman Ed Towns, the New York Democrat who also chairs the House of Representatives' Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. He connected two large-sized dots when he brought up the Dimitrios Biller lawsuit during the Toyota hearings.
In case people have forgotten about Biller, he's a former Toyota attorney who was originally involved in defending Toyota against product liability claims arising from rollover accidents. Biller alleges that Toyota knew of safety problems in its products and purposely/illegally hid evidence of those defects from plaintiffs' attorneys. He also happens to claim he has the documents to prove it.
Needless to say, Toyota and Biller have been engaged in a long-running legal battle over what really happened, but the company appeared to have been doing a good job of muffling the situation. At least until Rep. Towns subpoenaed Biller's cache of documents, reviewed the material, called out Toyota for an apparent "systematic disregard for the law" and is awaiting some kind of explanation.
And this is where things have the potential to move from "ugly" to "hideous" for the automaker. Let's start by looking at Toyota's current explanation for its quality woes: The basic claim here is that the company was too busy chasing growth and profits to focus properly on quality. But unless the only department that slacked off was the one overseeing Toyota's gas pedals, that reasoning doesn't really hold up; it's not like we're seeing a sudden spate of problems for anything else beyond unintended acceleration. (Yet.)
Then there's the new "black box" issue. A fair number of cars on the road today have the automotive version of an airliner's black box, the device that collects and saves various data about a vehicle's operation. The concept is that, if there's an accident, researchers can use that data to both identify problems and prevent future ones. Toyotas carry these devices, so one would think a review of the data from vehicles that experienced unintended acceleration would shed some light on the subject.
Except that company has been claiming that, in all of the United States, it only has one data reader for its black boxes, and that one is just a prototype.
Really? This might not rise to the level of a "systematic disregard for the law," but we're definitely approaching a systematic disregard for the intelligence of the American public. And I think consumers are catching on, which is reason enough to expect February sales to show a systematic disregard for Toyota products.