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posted: 2/4/2010 12:01 AM

Suburban Toyota owners have a hard choice to make

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  • Evelyn Loper of Hoffman Estates, who recently bought this 2009 Toyota Camry, says it may be the last Toyota she purchases because of the automaker's handling of the national recall of 2.3 million vehicles affected by a sticky accelerator pedal.

      Evelyn Loper of Hoffman Estates, who recently bought this 2009 Toyota Camry, says it may be the last Toyota she purchases because of the automaker's handling of the national recall of 2.3 million vehicles affected by a sticky accelerator pedal.
    Madhu Krishnamurthy | Daily Herald Staff

 
 

Evelyn Loper of Hoffman Estates Wednesday intended to drive her 2009 Toyota Camry to the local Chili's to meet her husband for lunch.

Despite what U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said earlier - that Toyota owners should stop driving their cars affected by the company's national gas pedal and floor mat recalls, she was determined to use her car. Still, she felt nervous about it.

"I'm concerned because they told us what to do - to put both feet on the brake and put it in neutral, but who's going to think of that," Loper said.

Affected Toyota owners are being asked not to call or take their vehicles into dealerships for repairs before being notified by the dealers themselves.

"But still they should have right away let people know," Loper said.

Loper's model is among the 2.3 million vehicles affected by a sticky accelerator pedal being recalled by the Japanese automaker. Toyota said Wednesday that vehicles not experiencing symptoms are safe to drive, despite earlier comments from LaHood, who later softened his remarks.

Still, for a suburbanite to abruptly stop driving could be difficult, considering some areas have little or no mass transportation. And some people have few alternatives or resources to rent another vehicle to get to work or school. Is all the commotion about the recalls worth altering your lifestyle?

Calm down, everyone, said Suzanne Fogel, chair of the marketing department at DePaul University and an expert on consumer behavior.

"Consumers have every right to be cautious, but they don't need to panic," Fogel said.

In fact, Toyota owners shouldn't be so paranoid as to stop driving unless they notice the symptoms of the gas pedal problem outlined by the company.

Fogel compared the massive Toyota recall, which has damaged the company's name, to what happened to Tylenol when its name was practically destroyed when a mass murderer used its products to kill people. "People react to the top level of things and if there are scary accidents and problems, most people hear it in the news, and they don't often take the time to investigate it more."

Tylenol struggled at that time but eventually reclaimed its brand name. Toyota may do the same, she said.

Besides, renting another car is expensive and the risk of injury in your own Toyota could be minimal, Fogel said.

Toyota's status has been damaged and, in the short term, could see its profit drop and lose market share to Ford and GM, said David Klein of Long Grove, senior vice president/financial consultant of RBC Wealth Management in Vernon Hills.

Toyota also is facing government scrutiny, possible civil penalties, class action lawsuits from the public and fallout from Wall Street, including Goldman Sachs cutting its shares from a "buy" to "neutral."

"The lack of consumer confidence and the uncertainty will effects earnings," said Klein.

While many experts believe Toyota has been handling this crisis well, others do not. "Toyota's response to this crisis has been naive at best and pathetic at worst. The good news for them is that customers have a short memory," said Jack Ablin of Highland Park, chief investment officer of Harris Private Bank in Chicago.

Still consumers could remain loyal, depending on how Toyota weathers this storm and the hope that no more serious problems occur, said Thomas Rowen, vice president and senior portfolio manager at Fifth Third Bank in Chicago.

"Some consumers will likely turn away from the brand, at least in the short-term," said Rowen. "How quickly, effectively and fairly Toyota acts to resolve the accelerator issue will be key to avoiding a more lasting impact on the brand. Many car manufacturers have recalled models in the past, including a smaller recall of vehicles recently by Honda."

Longtime Toyota owners, even like Rowen, are likely to remain loyal.

"It is a blow that the automotive industry does not need after two bad years," said Rowen. "With the weakness of American auto manufacturers contributing to a near 15 percent unemployment rate in Michigan, the prospect of Toyota's recent problems affecting manufacturing and sales of models made in U.S. plants is certainly unwelcome."

Still, Belen Gilondo of Mount Prospect said she's not waiting.

"I was supposed to call today to the dealer because I need to know what to do," she said after parking her 2009 Toyota Corolla at Walmart in Hoffman Estates. She already had her floor mats replaced in November by a Chicago Toyota dealer due to a recall.

"I don't know if it's the same problem or not," Gilondo said.

Gilondo added, she's not too concerned about driving her car because she hasn't had any problems.

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