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Indiana-made pickups add to Toyota woes

January 11, 2008
Quality problems involving a Toyota pickup truck made in Princeton have so tarnished the Japanese automaker's once-vaunted image that they drove onto Automotive News' list of the top 10 stories of 2007.

The trade publication in its Dec. 31 edition cited numerous recalls for the full-size Tundra pickup, including failed torque converters and propeller shafts.

Government records also show Toyota has recalled Tundra models for cracked camshafts, air bag problems, premature wear of front suspension ball joints and, on some older models, exhaust pipe flanges that could rub against brake lines and cause them to leak.

Some automotive Web sites also have bristled lately with complaints from Tundra owners whose tailgate sheet metal has separated under heavy loads, although that problem is not the subject of a recall.

"Toyota's global manufacturing chief expressed 'shame' over quality problems that have plagued the Tundra's launch," Automotive News said.

Even Consumer Reports, a publication that generally fawns over Toyota and other Japanese automakers' products, withdrew its recommendation for the redesigned 2007 Tundra four-wheel-drive V-8 model, citing "below-average reliability."

Perhaps more than any other automaker, Toyota has enjoyed perceptions of superior quality and reliability that in turn drove the company to become arguably the world's top automaker.

"They built their reputation on rock-solid quality. Let's face it, many of their products are not exactly exciting," said Aaron Bragman, an analyst for Global Insight in Troy, Mich. "So without the reputation for quality, what's really going to sell Toyotas?"

Many industry experts have attributed Toyota's recent quality issues, which included the V-6 version of its Camry car, to rapid growth. Toyota recently overtook Ford Motor Co. in North American sales.

"Their rapid expansion is really blamed not only on Tundra but for other recalls around the world as well," said Bragman.

"It's a company that's stretched itself thin. They're no longer bullet-proof," said Brett Smith, assistant director of the manufacturing, engineering and technology group at Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Center for Automotive Research.

Smith said some of the problems might stem from a new Toyota plant in San Antonio that also makes Tundras. There, Toyota brought in several outside suppliers.

Ensuring quality at the San Antonio plant was on the mind of company president Katsuaki Watanabe when he was quoted by Automotive News in 2006 as saying, "We have a new plant, new location, new vehicle, new people, new equipment and a new approach with on-site suppliers. We really have to make sure that all those new aspects can be a success."

Watanabe said Princeton would serve as the "mother plant" to Texas, "supporting this young plant."

Toyota traced the Tundra camshaft problems to a flaw in castings by an outside supplier to its Alabama engine plant. The flaw caused the camshaft to snap in some of its 5.7 liter V-8 engines.

In addition, Toyota in recent years has pressed suppliers to rein in costs, increasing risks that suppliers could cut corners on quality.

Toyota long built compact pickup trucks but didn't enter the big-boy market until about 15 years ago, starting with its mid-sized T-100. Despite years of continuous improvements, Toyota has several decades' less experience than U.S.-based automakers building big pickups, Smith said.

Smith compares it to the early 1980s, when domestic automakers stumbled while switching to making front-wheel-drive cars from the traditional rear-drive platform.

The Princeton plant, about 25 miles north of Evansville, employs more than 4,600. Besides the Tundra, it makes the Sequoia sport utility vehicle and Sienna minivan.

Aside from quality issues, the new Tundra has received praise in the automotive press for its design and appears to be a threat to the one segment in which Chrysler, Ford and General Motors remain dominant amid Japanese competition. For example, Motor Trend named the new Tundra its 2008 truck of the year.

Thanks to an aggressive push with incentives, Toyota is making inroads into the truck-rich market of Texas, Bloomberg reported today. The share of the market held by the Tundra, while small, has increased 79 percent. Other companies' saw their portion fall 5 percent.

Many industry experts have said Toyota eventually will get a handle on its Tundra problems. Toyota executives from Japan have been visiting U.S. plants in droves over the last year. The company even delayed by nearly a year the launch of a redesigned Corolla, the world's No. 1-selling car, to make sure there were no surprises, Bragman said.
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