Recalls put dealer in middle

Ed Habeck sells Toyotas, but these days his business is fixing them

GHENT–Kinderhook Toyota is about as busy as it has ever been–not selling cars, but fixing them.

Ed Habeck, who owns the showroom on Route 9H, stands behind the embattled brand: “We’ve been with Toyota for 40 years. They’ve always put the customer first.”

And, surprisingly, perhaps, that’s what many of his customers think.

 

“I wanted you to know that we love Toyota, and we love you guys,” Mindy Washington of Craryville said when she called in the other day. “We are devoted to you and your team, and I’d like to get the address for international headquarters so I can write to Mr. Toyoda himself,” she said, referring to Toyota’s president. In a follow-up call Ms. Washington said her family has driven Toyotas up to 300,000 miles with original parts. “I still think they are the best manufactured cars, and I think this debacle has been manufactured.”

“People are bringing cookies,” said Pete Gravlin, of Stuyvesant Falls, assistant service manager. “They are concerned about us.”

Despite this loyalty to the brand, Toyota still faces serious troubles: after recalling millions of vehicles to fix accelerator pedals and brakes, there are factory closings, Congressional hearings, lawsuits coming–and worried customers. The recalls include the Camry, America’s best-selling car, and even the Prius, the most popular hybrid car in the world, leaving the public wondering whether these cars are safe.

“I was at my computer watching CNN when [U.S. Transportation] Secretary LaHood told the public to stop driving their cars. That’s when it took off. My phones lit up,” Mr. Habeck said.

He just completed construction of the new Kinderhook Toyota showroom in Ghent and moved there last year from the dealership’s previous home a few miles up the highway in Kinderhook. “Would I have invested the money in this new facility if I’d sensed that Toyota was hiding something?” he asked. “We did not see this coming. And Toyota is just as stunned as we are.”

Kinderhook Toyota has extended its hours and hired more mechanics. All of the mechanics and service employees have been through the necessary training at Columbia-Greene Community College, and last Friday, February 12, shop mechanics were busy addressing the recalls. They removed and shortened accelerator pedals and adjusted the floor mats, procedures the company and federal regulators believe will fix the problems with sticking accelerators. A computer stood ready for a software adjustment to fix the issue with the brakes on the recalled Prius models.

Inside the shop, Marco Pantoja of Valatie, a mechanic, demonstrated the shims being used for the sticky accelerator pedals. The shims, small pieces of metal, are attached to the arm of the pedal. If the accelerator sticks, the car doesn’t decelerate as it should when the driver takes his foot off the pedal, although Mr. Pantoja said, “We have not found one getting stuck.” He added that “we assure the customers that installation of the shim doesn’t change the feel of the accelerator pedal.”

It takes about 30 minutes to fix the accelerator, and the work is continuous, but the shop at Kinderhook Toyota appears to have a system. “There’s no drama. We’re just taking care of business. We genuinely like our customers, and they genuinely like us,” said Karen Gaspard, the service and parts director.

This may be the greatest automotive recall crisis ever, but owners waiting for their vehicles were calm, reading books and sipping coffee. One gentleman brought his vehicle in for a recall adjustment, and another was there for an oil change and said he might as well get the shim installed for the sticky pedals at the same time. Neither had noticed any problems with their vehicles.

There is no cost to customers for the repairs.

The Japanese carmaker, which builds most of the cars and trucks it sells in the U.S. in Kentucky, Texas, Indiana and Canada, has been accused of being slow to deal with the problems. But Mr. Habeck believes that Toyota had to determine what was wrong, come up with a plan and go back to the government to get the plan approved. “This all started in October with the floor mats,” he said, referring to mats that could become jammed under the accelerator pedal, preventing it from operating correctly. “When you have a problem, the solution has to go through a bureaucracy. It doesn’t happen in a day,” said Mr. Habeck.

He uses the Toyota truck recall as an example of the how the company he does business with every day responds to customer concerns. Some of Toyota’s truck frames were rusting, so the company offered to replace frames on those customers’ vehicles. “Some of these have 100,000 miles on them and are way out of warranty. It’s expensive to replace a frame on a truck. They did this for the sake of their reputation. I see what they do to rectify a problem even if it’s not mandated, and all of a sudden they are getting hit in the media and the government,” said Mr. Habeck.

He’s particularly irked with Ray LaHood, the transportation secretary. “It’s like he’s got something in for us,” he said.

Even with a dip in the value of Toyota’s stock and continuing criticism of what some see as the slow response by the chief executive of the car maker, an unscientific survey indicated strong customer support for the vehicles and the dealership. This writer’s neighbor in Stuyvesant, who owns a Camry, said she had called the dealer to tell him that. And the service department has proof of that in the deliveries of flowers and home baked muffins, cookies and cream puffs that customers have been sending and bringing in.

But one customer said he wants to return his car. And the company recognizes the great threat these flaws represent to its future. It is running ads in newspapers and on TV now. And Toyota is planning efforts to reassure customers; a new advertising campaign scheduled for March and 0% financing, extended warranties for new cars and warranties for used cars, cash to dealers to help with service and added warranties.

Mr. Habeck said in response to a follow-up question by email that while he does not know how many cars his dealership will repair as part of the recall, he estimates it’s in the “thousands.”  But there might be a small silver lining in the recall, at least as far as customers are concerned. “When this adventure is complete, we are planning on continuing with extended service hours to better accommodate our customers,” he said.

A complete list of the recalled vehicles is available online at www.toyota.com/recall.

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