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.

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