Toyotas still attract interest at auto showby Jessica Mador, Minnesota Public Radio
Minneapolis — In the next few weeks, inspectors plan to re-examine a Toyota Camry that was involved in a fatal 2006 crash that killed three people.
The driver, Koua Fong Lee, who is serving time in prison for vehicular homicide, has insisted all along that he tried to stop the car.
The case has raised more questions about the safety of Toyotas, in light of the company's recent massive recalls.
In 2006, Lee was driving his family home from church. As he exited the freeway his car sped up, crashing into a car waiting at the stoplight. Three people were killed. Lee claimed he was braking as hard as he could, but the 1996 Camry wouldn't stop.
Lee's defense attorney says he is pleased that investigators will have a chance to reinspect Lee's car. The attorney is convinced the accident was caused by acceleration problems similar to those that sparked Toyota's recent recalls.
At the auto show in Minneapolis this weekend, Toyota spokesman Curt McAllister declined to answer questions about the Lee case.
"The 1996 Camry is not on the recall list," said McAllister. "We really can't discuss that at this point in time because we were not part of the initial investigation. Our legal department is very busy these days, and our dealers and our regional sales offices are taking all of these concerns very seriously."
McAllister has been fielding lots of questions from concerned drivers lately at auto shows around the country, including questions about the safety and reliability of Toyotas in the future.
McAllister said Toyota is working hard to rebuild customer trust.
To help do that, the company is rolling out new safety features like brake override systems on all new Toyotas, Lexus and Scion models. He said Toyota is also working with the federal government to uncover the cause of sudden or unintended acceleration problems. But McAllister instisted such problems are rare.
Toyota sales took a hit after the recall -- U.S. sales were down 10 percent this February over last -- but the company did better than some had predicted. McAllister said that's because Toyota customers are famously loyal.
"While we may have taken a momentary stumble here, I think people are still very happy with their vehicles, and I think we are still on a lot of people's shopping lists," he said.
The company is counting on loyal customers to help them out of the crisis -- customers like Amanda Shaw from Coon Rapids.
Checking out a minivan at the auto show, Shaw said she's not worried about the recalls. Her family has owned more than one Toyota, and is very satisfied with their track record.
"We put 94,000 miles on our Matrix. It's only five years old and we never had one single problem with it," Shaw said, "so I'm not too concerned."
Shaw said they also own a 2008 Siena minivan, which works well for her two toddlers.
"The recalls really didn't put us off from buying one, and we feel safe enough putting you guys in it, huh?" she said while holding her infant son in her arms.
Lots of people feel the same way, according to car research Web sites.
Edmunds.com and Kelley Blue Book both reported a spike in interest among prospective buyers after Toyota announced new sales incentives, including interest-free loans and free maintenance.
Right next to Toyota at the auto show is Ford. Ford's booth was packed with people crowding around trucks, kicking tires and sitting in the driver's seat.
Ford's vice president of US marketing and sales, Ken Czubay, saidrivers are responding to Ford's new models.
"They are being attracted to the new fuel economy that we are talking about with the new Fusion, they are excited about the new Fiesta that is coming in a few months to America, they know that we introduced a new Edge, and our truck business has been going very well," Czubay said. "The segment is small, but we've been doing very well."
Czubay said Ford vehicles are safe, but he admitted acceleration problems are not exclusive to Toyota.
In fact, compaints to federal regulators show that unintended acceleration is actually a problem across the auto industry.
For now, Toyota is hogging the spotlight. Congress is questioning Toyota's handling of the recalls and repairs. Dozens of drivers have reported unintended acceleration problems, even after their cars were fixed.
Auto companies aren't the only ones under scrutiny. Congress is also looking into the actions of a federal agency that oversees auto safety.
Regulators are now questioning whether Toyota's electronics systems could be causing unintended acceleration. Toyota denies that, saying there is no evidence of that.
- Morning Edition, 03/08/2010, 6:20 a.m.