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Toyota slips on quality

NEW YORK, Feb 12 – While US automakers raced to improve quality to compete with Toyota, the Japanese firm\’s standards apparently slipped a gear as it ramped up production to meet booming demand in the United States.

"Everybody\’s been chasing Toyota for years and now people are catching them," Rebecca Lindland, analyst at IHS Global Insight, told AFP.

Toyota\’s growing safety woes are hitting hard at a company that has seen a meteoric rise in the United States fueled by a reputation for reliability.

Surveys by independent firms such as Consumer Reports and JD Power have ranked Toyota at or near the top for years, allowing the Japanese giant to overtake General Motors in 2008 as the world\’s biggest carmaker.

"The speculation in the industry is that some of the very high standards may have been relaxed when the production increased dramatically and left Japan," Lindland said.

The analyst said that Toyota "had quality issues as soon as they brought production of the Lexus to North America" a few years ago.

Lindland said that "obviously some element of loss of control" was felt by the Japanese automaker in the initial quality of the foreign-made vehicles, which can occur when automakers start producing in new countries.

Toyota\’s share of the US market has exploded in recent years, rising from 9.3 percent to 17 percent in the 2000-2009 period.

Meanwhile, the company\’s North American production has soared in the past decade as it has brought more of its assembly plants closer to their end products\’ point of sale.

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Even with sales growing, complaints have been rising against Toyota at the national safety watchdog, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

A decline in Toyota quality, and improvement by US rivals, is reflected in the complaints listed on the NHTSA website.

According to the car buying website, between 2001 and 2010 Toyota was the subject of 9.1 percent of the consumer complaints on the NHTSA website.

Jake Fisher, senior engineer in auto testing at Consumer Reports, said that Toyota\’s share of all complaints registered with the NHTSA jumped to 40 percent in 2008 and then shot up to 90 percent after a stuck accelerator on a Toyota vehicle resulted in a fatal accident in California in August 2009.

Fisher pointed out that Toyota complaints in 2008, before the company\’s first recall to fix a gasoline pedal problem causing unintended acceleration, involved one Toyota vehicle in 13,000, compared with one in 20,000 for other automakers.

"It\’s a very severe problem but, if only affecting one of 13,000 vehicles, (that is) a normal message of collecting reliability data," he said.

In searching the NHTSA database, "we found that every automaker has problems of sudden acceleration," he said.

"There\’s certainly something going on with Toyota but it\’s not exclusive to them," he added, although no other automaker has issued a recall of almost nine million vehicles in recent months as Toyota has done for accelerator and braking problems.

The number of NHTSA complaints registered in 2009 and this year against GM, Ford and Chrysler are miniscule compared with those against Toyota, and on certain models only one or two complaints have been lodged.

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Lindland suggested Toyota ran into trouble when it expanded North American production on the cheap.

"They were trying to do a lot with the same amount of resources — that also requires some compromises," she said.

"In order to contain cost and profitability they did not hire as many people as some may expect."

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