Fascinating to spend the eve of the Paris show with Toyota. The firm’s not going to be grabbing many headlines over the next 48 hours; it’s showing a facelifted iQ and Lexus IS here, and a new mini-MPV called the Verso-S that’s, well, somewhat difficult to get excited about.
I have to admit to cracking a smile when new Toyota Motor Europe President Didier Leroy said he was ‘happy to confirm’ that the next-generation Toyota Yaris, which will enter production in 2011 in Valenciennes, will be offered as a hybrid.
Perhaps it’s just coincidence that Toyota should choose to confirm that news the night before the world debut of Honda’s Jazz Hybrid, but I doubt it.
After his speech, I got talking with Leroy about Toyota Motor Europe’s tumultuous year so far. After the PR crisis that should hereandafter be referred to as Acceleratorgate, it would seem the firm is now out of the woods.
“Our European market share returned to 4.8 per cent in August – where it was in January, before the recalls,” said Didier with some relief. “At one point, it was looking like we would be lucky to sell 700,000 cars this year, but in fact we should easily hit 800,000. And there’s plenty of growth potential for 2011.”
So does the new European boss worry that some incurable long-term damage was done by the recall? “Honestly, I do, but then I worried that it would take us longer to recover than it seems to have. Perhaps the situation gave some new customers cause for concern; maybe they delayed their purchases for a few months, until they could be sure the problem was fixed. But honestly, I don’t think returning customers were put off.”
And the reason he can think that is because a great many of those loyal customers wrote to him. At one point earlier this year, at the height of the recall furore, Toyota GB was receiving 200 letters a day. Ninety per cent of them, the firm says, were from Toyota owners expressing their trust in the company in spite of all the negative publicity.
“This year has changed Toyota,” Didier said. “We now have a special committee for quality, and we’re focused on getting into dialogue with owners to identify any potential quality problems as quickly as possible. You could have called us a single-minded company before, but there’s new will to push the quality and durability of our cars forwards again. We are aware that our competitors have closed the gap to us in that regard, and it’s up to us to restore our lead.”
“The accelerator fault itself was very minor,” Leroy said. “When people ask me how dangerous the problem really was, I just tell that my wife, my son and my daughter all drive a Yaris. They’ve been doing so all year. Technically, their cars should all have been recalled for the pedal modification. So far, only my son has actually had it done. Do you think I would knowingly let my own family drive around in faulty cars? Of course I wouldn’t. But at the time, it was vital that we were seen to do something.”