WHAT’S GONE WRONG WITH TOYOTA?

I don’t know.

However, some of my personal experiences with the company over the years have led me to believe that I might have a clue.

I purchased my first Toyota in 1993.  Actually, it was a 1993 Lexus ES 300, one of Toyota’s luxury models.  I had been driving, actually wrestling, a 1985 custom GMC Van for the previous 8 years and was ready for a radical change.  I bought a fully loaded Lexus that even included the now-discontinued gold-trim package (gold-plated emblems and exhaust pipe tips!).  The car turned out to be a wonderful dream.  In the three years that I owned the Lexus, nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, ever went wrong.  I never had to so much as replace a tail-light bulb.  I was so inspired that I added the word “LEXURY” to the American lexicon and memorialized my new word on a vanity license plate. 

I continued to be so hooked by the magic of my Lexus that I traded that wondrous thing for a virtually identical 1996 model.  This time though I opted out of the gold package and switched car color from blue to green.  I honestly expected, that at some point , something would go wrong with my ultimate driving experience, and that maybe I would at least blow a tire or something.   However, nothing went wrong!  I continued to drive this car for 4 full years.  I had now chalked up a record of 2 cars – 7 years – and n0 problems.  Not bad for a fancy Toyota.

In 2000 Lexus and I went our separate ways.  Their sales force did not seem to need or want me even though I had been elevated to “preferred customer” status (never really sure what that meant).  Apparently, the good word had spread about Lexus reliability and performance, customer demand had significantly increased, and so renewing the same old deal with me didn’t seem to their liking.  Unfortunately, we could not get together on price, so I reluctantly said, “Good-bye.”  I proceeded to buy a 2000 New Beetle.

Like General MacArthur, I would return.   For some reason, the Lexus sales people needed me again, I needed them again, or maybe we just both needed each other.  Consequently, in late 2007, I pre-ordered a ruby-red 2008 Lexus ES 350, an upgraded version of my old standbys.  I couldn’t wait for it to arrive. 

When I went to the dealership to complete the paperwork and receive delivery, something odd and quite unexpected happened.  I was asked by a young woman if I was ready for my driving tutorial.  “Huh?  How long will this take?” I inquired, eager to get rolling.  “Oh, maybe 45 minutes to an hour, or maybe a little faster; it sort of depends,” she replied.   I must tell you in advance that, had it not been for that tutorial, I would not have made it out of the dealership lot.  The key-less entry instructions alone took about 15 minutes.   My lesson seemed to go on and on, but it was all requisite knowledge that I was glad I had received.  Almost nothing in this new car seemed intuitive.   When she got to the blue-tooth stuff, I was becoming somewhat brain-dead and begged off, telling her that I would take care of that at home with my owner’s manual.  As I finally drove off, I was wondering what had happened in the intervening years of 2000-2008.  The car seemed to feel like something familiar, but I did notice that it took quite a bit longer to stop (it was 400 lbs. heavier, so I later discovered).  No matter, I was a happy guy.

Then, things began to happen – not-so-nice things.  One night, while attempting to turn on an overhead light, I accidently pushed a button which activated a humming noise.  I laughed when I discovered that I had inadvertently opened the moon-roof.   I stopped laughing when it would not close.  With the overhead light now on and manual in hand, I gave it about 20 or so tries.  But all to no avail.   The moon-roof was stuck open.  No problem.  I’ll call the dealership tomorrow, get a quick telephone fix, and that will be that.   It didn’t work out quite that way.

The telephone fix didn’t materialize as expected, so the service department  suggested that I make an appointment.  “Sure – today or tomorrow?”  I inquired.  “The first opening we have is next week.”  Getting testy in a hurry, I replied that between now and 8 days later, I doubted that I could avoid bird droppings, tree sap, a spontaneous downpour, or agile thieves.  Maybe I could get lucky on 3 of the 4, but I really would like to have the company pick up my car in an enclosed 18-wheeler and transport it to the nearest dealership (90 miles away) as soon as possible.  “Can you do that?  That is part of the Lexus guarantee.” I  pleaded.  “Of course, if the car is not drivable,” was the well-rehearsed reply.  Naturally, this conversation went nowhere in a hurry.    I garaged the vehicle for a week, prayed that there would be no rain on the appointed day, and waited my turn.

The car was fixed a week later, but the service people told me that they had never before encountered such a problem.  They acknowledged that the mechanism had indeed been stuck, but they couldn’t figure out why.  “Chalk it up to a goofy computer chip,” was the best that they could offer.   Right.

A few weeks later I decided to set up my bluetooth.  That procedure did not go well.  I was surprised to discover the manual revealing that difficulties might arise during this process such that a visit to the dealership would be necessary.  I passed.

There continue to be glitches.  If a particular sequence is not precisely followed in turning off the car, it is not possible to lock it.  One is required to re-enter the car, start it up and turn it off again to re-set the locking electronics.  Not a safety feature here, just an annoyance caused by over-engineering or under-thinking, so I presume.  Recently, both rear-view mirrors bizarrely changed their alignment.  I actually saw it happen, and I was hands-free.  I have no idea.

Last week I received a recall notice for my 2008 ES 350.   I am instructed to make an appointment with my local Lexus dealer regarding a potential floor mat interference problem with the accelerator.  The problem is described as a floor mat problem that might cause the accelerator to stick in the wide open position.  Gee!  Interesting!  Could this be the  reason that when I picked up my new Lexus over 2 1/2 years ago that my floor mats were in the trunk, and that I was advised to keep them there for safety reasons?

Along with my recall notice, I was advised in an accompanying disclosure that certain 2008 Lexus ES vehicles needed an engine variable valve timing with intelligence (VVT-i) oil hose replacement.  Again, I need to bring the car in to have this checked out.  I am so happy that Lexus is on the case of my possible rogue oil hose.

(UPDATE:  On March 24, I took the car to the dealership to get the recall notice issues addressed.  They replaced my gas pedal with a new, shorter  one and replaced the oil hose.  The dealership people never used the word “recall” the entire day.  Several used the word “safety campaign” instead.  At the end of the service call my “service advisor” told me that it was my lucky day.  “Oh, really, why?” I replied.  “For your trouble today we are going to top off your gas tank free of charge,” he said.  I guess it wasn’t my lucky day after all – I had filled up the tank the previous evening.)

Maybe surprisingly, I want to confess here that I still love my Lexus.  I do not believe that I have a lemon.  Far from it.  It is a very, very nice car, and I recommend ownership to anyone who might ask.    But I do believe quite strongly that somewhere, somehow, the company slipped on the one thing that their customers have come to expect – impeccable quality, likely as a result of some of the finest quality control procedures in the world. 

How can it all be fixed?

I don’t know.

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Published in: on March 8, 2010 at 5:44 am  Comments (36)  
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36 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. That was quite a dilemma I bet. But It was a good, but very frustrating, experience. Thanks for your story.

    • Hey, thanks for your comments. I appreciate them.

  2. I am your “twin” in terms of Lexus loyalty. I bought the first model the first year- a burgundy 200 something series long since forgotten. Last year when I took my 2008 ES350 in for service, the smiling manager told me that I was going to get new floor mats. He made it sound like it was a gift for my multiple Lexus purchases. I just got the 2 pronged recall letter last week. First available appointment is in 3 weeks.
    As far as all the gadgets- I am 56 and female. No way was I remembering all of the tutorial. I’m lucky if I can find the keys in the morning.
    Lexus: Push the button. Drive.Pray.

    • Thanks for your comments. I just knew that there were kindred Lexus souls out there. I like your, “Push the button. Drive. Pray,” but you need to add, “And be ready to shove into neutral in case of an unexpected takeaway.”

  3. I have a 2008 Lexus ES350 as well. I got the ultra package with panoramic roof and Mark Levinson sound system. From and A to an F, I would give this car a D. The 1998 Toyota Camry exceeded it in ever quality factor I could think of.

    Within a few weeks, there was a squeak/rattle in the rear passenger side. Lexus was completely unable to fix this even after 3 attempts, the last of which involved them removing the entire roof to fix the problem. The top-end security system is nothing short of a friggin disaster. You’re going to think I’m joking, but every time it rains, the rear speakers become completely unusable. A massive amount of distortion comes from one of the woofers, so I have set only the front speakers to play music. Again, after 3 attempts, this is unfixable… and by far the most odd car problem I have ever experienced. The side mirrors only began rolling down when the car is in reverse, after the last maintenance (I’ve owned it for 2 years and didn’t even know this was the intended functionality). There seems to be engine lag, the ride is shockingly less smooth than my old Camry, and the steering is uninspired.

    Really the only positive things I have to say about it is it looks good inside and out, especially with the panoramic roof. Sadly, this may be my last Toyota. $40k is an expensive glass of lemonade.

    • What is amazing about the problems that lexus seems to be having is that so many of them seem to be unfixable or, worse, incomprehensible. For the life of me, I cannot understand why, with sophisticated diagnostics, virtually all of these electronic problems cannot be well-understood, diagnosed, and then fixed. Well, maybe I can understand. I think there is hasty and problematic electronic engineering going on. Through lax quality control into the mix – and bingo!

  4. I have a 2007 Lexus ES350. It’s been a wonderful car with no significant problems. The roof did open on it’s own. Maybe something in my wife’s purse pressed a button on the remote for the keyless entry system.

    The strangest problem was her inability to start the car one evening. I had to bring the second remote for the keyless entry to her in order to start the car. It seems her remote had been having late night conversations with her cell phone. When the 2 pieces of electronic gadetry are left near each other the car remote tries to talk to the phone. Apparently it thinks the phone is the mother ship. The resulting non stop attempts to call home resulted in a dead battery in the Lexus remote. Without the remote the car will not start. The uncommon battery required for the remote is not readily available without a trip to the Toyota dealership. Now I carry a spare remote battery in the glove box and keep the remote and cell phone away from each other. Placing the remote on the table near the cable tv box seems to run the battery down as well.

    I also have a 2008 RX350 which still uses a key instead of the over engineered keyless entry system. I love it. I will buy Lexus again. They are extremely reliable cars.

    • Thank you for your comments about the keyless entry system. I, too, believe that there is something wacky about the electronics with this system but, so far, our cellphones luckily are on a different frequency.

      Good luck with your current Lexus’s and future ones as well. I’m thinking that maybe the most flawless cars in the world may turn out to be the very next generation of Toyota products.

    • if your smart key battery dies hold the logo of the key onto the push button to start the car then push the start button
      i wonder if that is in the tutorial

      • That’s very good information to have (if I am able to remember it in the midst of a panic). I do not recall that advice being in the tutorial.

        Thanks for your comment.

  5. One thing is for sure. We’ll never know if the Service Advisor volunteered to fill-up your tank before looking at your fuel gauge. 8^)

    • Good point! I think that I’ll point out that possibility the next time that I visit the service dept. Maybe I can shame them into giving me a real fill-up.

      Thanks for your comment. My wife and I both got a big kick out of it.

      • Actually, most Lexus dealers will do it for a Special Service Campaign b/c it is dictated by their Headquarters. Some will even do it as a goodwill depending on the situation you encounter.

  6. I’m wondering why this Toyota drama happens in US only…

    If you can’t figure out how to use the gadgets in the car and consider all high tech stuffs are nonsense and hard to use, looks like that driving tutorial is for you.

    • It happens in the U.S. because we buy more Lexus products than any other country. In addition, the cars shipped here are often more complicated and technologically sophisticated than the cars sold elsewhere.

    • Americans love their cars and are quite vocal about them. I would guess that non-U.S. complaints exist in similar measure. If I lived in Europe and asked around, I’m sure I would hear similar stories – just as dramatic.

    • Interesting saga. A friend from Hungary years ago wondered why everyone in the US thought Toyota was so great. He said the general opinion in his country was that they were junk. He thought Honda was much better. Obviously something went awry in the marketing over there. Doesn’t take much.

      • Toyota and Lexus had overwhelming positive consumer feedback for years and years in the United States – many years outdistancing Honda in customer satisfaction. Accordingly, this was reflected in their sales. The problems with Toyota and their quality control have developed just over the past several years – and the word is not completely out yet as to what happened to go so wrong with their manufacturing process. You’re right that it doesn’t take much to go wrong before all sorts of things start to come out of the woodwork.

  7. Thanks for relating your story. I like cars, and love my 2006 Accord V6, but have been looking for a new ride. Re-upping for another Honda is not a slam-dunk, also this particular Accord is my 12th (I drive 48K per year for business).

    I’m disappointed with the overly technical nature of all the new vehicles I’ve looked at. Where others see ‘features’, I see ‘potential problems’.

    I really like the BMW 335d, but the dealer looks askance at ordering one ‘plain vanilla’. I like the Camry, but get the same reaction. Would not mind a Passat, but local dealers are charging over sticker.

    May actually purchase a used low-mileage 2006/2007 Accord.

  8. I think you are right on the mark with your commnent that “where others see ‘features’ I see potential problems.” There seems to be an unending race by the auto manufacturers to produce more and more features, most of them superfluous, unnecessary, or unwanted. These features, of course, jack up the retail prices of the cars and, hence, the companies’ profit margins. The list of nutty features is almost endless. The logical conclusion to this strategy eventually leads to producing cars that virtually no one wants. The leaders of the automobile companies have, overall, probably been the dumbest bunch in the last 50 years of world manufacturing.

    • It’s funny, everyone is so down on the new technology. Nevermind the fact that a car can have 100k miles on it these days and still hum like a dream. Look, it’s all those “features” that make a “Luxury” car just that. Lexus doesnt have any more refinement than a Toyota…just more gadgets. Maybe you guys should be considering a base-line Toyota instead? I know, it just doesnt “look” as cool…but it does have everything you are asking for…simplicity 🙂

      Im a contractor and have a 2010 Toyota Tundra pickup. It is without a doubt, the best vehicle I’ve ever owned – so far…I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

      Hey, when do you think the best time to buy Toyota stock is????

      • First, thanks for your comments. I take your point about new car technology being wonderful; but I think what people are complaining about is that toyota has gotten ahead of itself in not making sure that the technology is tried and true before shoving it out on the market in a fierce race with other auto manufacturers.

        Glad to hear your good report on the Tundra.

        As to investment advice – sorry, I have nothing for you there.

  9. I am an internet sales manager for Lexus. The North American built Toyota’s use a different accelerator pedal assembly and are the ones involved in the pedal recal. The Lexus vehicles are haveing the pedals shortened because clients were stack all weather floor mats on top of the carpeted ones and the hooks can only accomodate one set of mats.
    If you need help with your blue tooth let me know. I can give you very simple directions. The cars have become very technical. I used to work on the service drive and help people decide weather to repair or replace and also did advanced training on Nav and technical features. I have three Lexus Vehicles and a 2007 Tundra that I Love and the only problem in three years was the clock was loosing time.

    • Thanks for your comments. Yes, I agree that the Lexus’ have become very technical – just a little too technical (read user-unfriendly). I like to stay away from any and all owner’s manuals unless something really unusual happens. Unfortunately, I could fall asleep every night reading my Lexus owner’s manual and still not have it all down pat.

      It’s just supposed to be a nice car – not a lunar landing module.

  10. How to fix the problem? Quit outsourcing all the engineering, testing and manufacturing to China. Then you will get things that are more intuitive and better quality.

    • I don’t think it’s just China to blame! Here’s one example (http://www.toyotanation.com/forum/showthread.php?t=327265) but you can find tons of forums on the web where people with the 2AZFE engine block (used in the 02+ Camry, 01+ Highlander and some of the TC’s and Rav4’s) strips out 3 head bolts in the rear of the engine and blows the head gasket. The only fix is a new block at $5000+ or to have somebody redrill the head bolts with new inserts ($1000-2000 for the labor). Toyota claims that this happens due to overheating the block, but a lot of mechanics think otherwise – they think stress fatigue leads to this which then leads to coolant leaking out and an overheat. Why? Toyota drilled steel bolts (which were too small/weak/too few threads) into aluminum with out any kind of reinforcement.

      I’ve seen one report where Toyota stood by the product and paid for a replacement block and a few instances where they paid 25% +/- of the repair but for the majority of the reports, no assistance at all. Out of luck.

      That Camry is built in that USA and the Highlanders in question are built in Japan! I think the affected RAV4 and TC were Japan as well? Most of the Lexus cars are built in Japan and the majority of Toyota’s best over the last 20-25 years (Land Cruiser, 4Runner, the older Camrys, Cressida etc.) were all built in Japan. People would swear that the build quality of the vehicles rolling off the line in Japan was better than that of the USA; maybe, maybe not. BUT, this stripped bolt issue on the 2AZFE pays no attention to the country of origin. Both Japan and USA built cars have been reported to show the issue.

      Is it every car? No. Is it possible that some of this is caused by neglect? Sure. Every owner becomes the guy who maintains his car the most meticulously when he’s trying to convince the dealer that the dealer should pay, but there’s a lot of reports on this! And not a lot if any press coverage.

      Thing is, you buy a Toyota and the old adage was that if you just change the oil the thing will run 200 or 300k miles with no problems. The implication being that you could abuse them a little bit. It’s just not true anymore – I’m not sure if it’s true of any car anymore. They don’t take abuse – you have to be meticulous; almost over meticulous and even then (as we’re seeing with some of these Toyotas) it’s out of your hands.

      It’s making me rethink the concept of leasing. One way or another you’re paying. You can lease and not have repair expenses but then have no equity or you can own your car and then pay like crazy to keep it running to get your money’s worth.

      We have one Toyota in our family right now and many in our extended family. Independent of the gas pedal issue, as far as I can see, my next car will not be a Toyota. Honda. Hyundai. Subaru. Ford, even…? That’s where I’ll be looking first. The grass may not be greener on the other side but the confidence I once had in Toyota isn’t there anymore.

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