The Toyota recall hit a new stage of confusion and alarm Wednesday, with hundreds of people calling Twin Cities dealers after the head of the federal Department of Transportation urged people to immediately quit using their vehicles until repairs can be made, then later saying he misspoke.
Our call center is "extremely busy," said Charlie Swenson, Walser Bloomington Toyota's general manager. The dealership plans to shuffle mechanics from its non-Toyota dealerships to help with the recall crunch.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood's statement prompted new questions and rattled Toyota stockholders, causing shares to plunge 8 percent before they recovered slightly, closing the day down 6 percent.
On Wednesday, Walser Toyota received its first box of postage stamp-size pieces of metal that Toyota said will fix the accelerator problem. Mechanics are going to be trained right away, and repairs are expected to begin Thursday and Friday. The dealership's service center will be open on Sundays for at least five weeks to take care of its 2,500 to 3,000 customers whose cars need the recall fix, which takes about 30 minutes.
Swenson said Walser has had to come up with alternative plans for some its other dealerships so its call center team is freed up for the Toyota calls. "They're greatly overwhelmed," he said.
Toyota recalled eight models Jan. 21 and stopped selling them five days later because their accelerator pedals could stick in a depressed position. Sudden acceleration in Toyota and Lexus vehicles has been blamed for at least 19 fatalities and 815 crashes since 1999.
Because of the way Minnesota records crash data, the state doesn't know how many sudden-acceleration incidents, if any, have happened in Minnesota. The State Patrol hasn't investigated "serious or fatal crashes involving Toyotas with pedal malfunctions in recent years," said Nathan Bowie, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety.
No room at the dealer
Doug Sprinthall, director of new vehicle operations for Walser, said one of his first thoughts when he heard about LaHood's initial comments: Just where are we going to put all those cars?
"We have thousands of customers who are affected by the recall and unless they let us park them at the Mall of America, it's not a practical thing. We just don't have enough room," said Sprinthall.
Swenson was more pointed. "It's unfortunate that when statements are made there's sometimes a retraction, and obviously when there's a retraction, it's probably something that shouldn't have been out to start with."
June Drehner, who said she, her husband and two grown children all drive Toyotas, wasn't too worried about the recall until her children heard LaHood's comments and called her, urging her to stop driving her 2009 Toyota RAV4 right away. She drove it up to Walser Wednesday afternoon, where she was relieved to learn it wasn't affected because it was built in Japan.
"I was going to wait until I got the calls," she said. "My son told me I shouldn't drive it" and my daughter called from Florida.
Linda Brammer of Minneapolis was shopping at Walser for a new Corolla or Camry and had no qualms about buying a new Toyota. "None whatsoever," she said.
Her 1996 Camry served her well but had been sideswiped, so it was time for a new one. "Every car company has problems and they are working to deal with it."
While she was hoping for a better deal because of the recall, she said she wasn't counting on it and planned to shop around. "I'll also look at Hondas," she said.
Stew Thornley of Roseville is even less worried. He got a new Toyota last spring, and "I don't know if it's part of the recall or not." He plans to get it checked out when the crisis subsides and says he'll put the car in neutral if the acceleration problem strikes.
"It's worth being concerned about but not hysterical," he said.
Adding to Toyota's woes, questions now are being raised about the brakes on Toyota's marquee Prius hybrid.
The Prius was not part of the most recent recall, but Japan's transport ministry ordered the company to investigate complaints of brake problems with the hybrid. LaHood said his department, too, was looking into brake problems. About 100 complaints over Prius brakes have been filed in the United States and Japan.
In addition, LaHood said his department had received new complaints about electronics and would undertake a broad review, looking beyond Toyota vehicles into whether automobile engines could be disrupted by electromagnetic interference caused by power lines or other sources. Toyota has said it investigated for electronic problems and failed to find a single case pointing in that direction.
Toyota Motor Corp., in a statement, said if owners were experiencing problems with the accelerator pedal "please contact your dealer without delay. If you are not experiencing any issues with your pedal, we are confident that your vehicle is safe to drive."
In October, Toyota recalled about 5 million vehicles over problems with floor mats trapping gas pedals. The latest recall involves 2009-10 RAV4 crossovers, 2009-10 Corollas, 2009-10 Matrix hatchbacks, 2005-10 Avalons, 2007-10 Camrys, 2010 Highlander crossovers, 2007-10 Tundra pickups and 2008-10 Sequoia SUVs.
Many consumer groups have questioned whether Toyota's fix will work and have asserted it could be connected to problems with the electronic throttle control systems.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, meanwhile, asked CTS, the Indiana company that made the pedals involved in Toyota's latest recall, if the same problem could exist for other automakers. CTS makes pedals for Honda, Nissan and a small number of Ford vehicles in China, but the auto supplier has said the issues are limited to Toyota.
Staff writer Jim Foti and the Associated Press contributed to this report. Suzanne Ziegler • 612-673-1707