Toyota is all ears at the Auto Show

  • Article by: SUZANNE ZIEGLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 7, 2010 - 7:25 PM

The beleaguered company faces questions about the recall but mostly about the cars in its display.

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John and Kirsi Dahl of Vadnais Heights pretty much summed up the climate for Toyota at the Twin Cities Auto Show.

Kirsi wouldn't hesitate to buy another one. "I have a Camry and I love it," she said. "I have confidence they will resolve their issues."

Her husband is hesitant, although a good deal would help to keep him in the fold: "Part of the reason we're here is to look at options other than Toyota," he said. "Before their problems, it would have been a no brainer."

At the show, which opened Saturday and runs through March 14, Toyota's display was just as crowded as the others.

The company's sales team had been prepped to answer tough questions about the recall. And its Midwest spokesman, Curt McAllister, who normally would not have been there, was on hand to handle reporters' questions and get a feel for what prospective buyers were saying.

"There's a combination of general interest and intrigue in how we're dealing with the situation," he said.

That situation is Toyota's recall of more than 8 million vehicles worldwide to resolve problems linked to unintended acceleration. Sales of Toyotas have fallen, while Ford, General Motors and others have shown gains.

Toyota is trying to win back customers with new incentives. Just last week, it began offering zero percent financing, and return customers can get two years of free maintenance.

Visitors at the show, which seemed considerably more crowded than opening day last year, moved back and forth between the Toyota and Ford displays, which are adjacent.

Ford's vice president of U.S. marketing and sales, Kenneth Czubay, said he is sympathetic to Toyota's situation but acknowledged it has meant increased business for Ford.

"We wish no one, no company, any problems," he said. "But what we found starting 18 months ago is that people started looking at our products when they were looking at other cars before."

Later on at the show, Derwin Lemke of Bloomington said he was considering Toyota because he has had such a bad experience with Dodge.

"I believe Toyota will fix the problem and I have enough brains in my head to know if an engine starts racing like that, to throw it into neutral," he said as he sat in a Camry on the show floor. "It's too bad they took the beating that they did. There's too much at stake for them not to remedy the problem."

Lexus, Toyota's luxury division, is displaying at the opposite end of the showroom. Chris Stendal of Chanhassen was looking "just for fun" at a Lexus with his two children.

"I wouldn't buy one now," he said. "I don't think they really know what the problem is. First the floor mats, then the pedal. I really wonder if it's the computer."

Some experts have said the problem with the unintended acceleration is caused by problems in the electronic throttle system, rather than mechanical issues involving pedals.

The Dahls said they won't be ready to buy for about six months. John Dahl is concerned that the Toyota problem still seems to be unresolved. "Just why is it taking so long?" he said. Kirsi Dahl, however, said she thinks Toyota's problems will be solved by the time they're ready to buy.

McAllister, of Toyota, said the sales force has been told to hand out business cards with Toyota's customer service phone number to people who pose any questions that they can't handle.

"Some are asking about where we stand as a company, about the two fixes and about any updates," he said. "The lion's share has been about the products on the floor. Our executives have set the tone to be as transparent as possible and that has to trickle down to the auto show level, too."

Suzanne Ziegler • 612-673-1707

  • TWIN CITIES AUTO SHOW

    WHEN: Through March 14

    WHERE: Minneapolis Convention Center.

    COST: Adults (16-plus): $10; Juniors (11-15): $5, Children (10 and younger): Free.

    MORE INFO: www.twincitiesautoshow.com

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