Car recalls: Can Toyota keep American devotion?

Car recalls for 2011 got off to an early start.

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    An American flag flies above a Lexus sign at a dealership in Los Angeles. The Lexus recall of 245,000 cars on January 26 follows several car recalls in the past year from its parent company Toyota.
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Toyota's latest recall gives Americans one more reason to favor domestic automakers.

Right now, consumers, media, and the Obama administration are looking for ways to champion US manufacturers, said Gene Grabowski, the chair of the crisis and litigation group at Levick Strategic Communications—and the Japanese automaker’s string of car recalls gives them an easy way to do so.

“It plays into the story that US autos are back, and the quality is high or better than overseas manufacturers, and that can hurt sales for Toyota,” Mr. Grabowski said.

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Last year, Toyota recalled millions cars worldwide for a host of different problems, so Wednesday’s recall of 245,000 Lexuses in the United States is just one more on the list. Though Toyota was able to sustain the damage it suffered from last year’s recalls, Grabowski said it might be starting to push its luck.

“This recall is really starting to strain that goodwill bank, and if it continues, we’re getting close to an overdraft in the goodwill bank,” he said.

If Toyota wants to keep US consumers’ trust, it needs to “be out there talking about what the source of the recall is, putting it in the right context and perspective,” Grabowski said.

Most important, he added, Toyota should use a spokesperson from the US, not someone in Tokyo who “seems distant.”

The best Toyota can hope for, Grabowski said, is that consumers will walk away thinking, “Recalls are going to happen with all automakers. Toyota responds quickly and fixes the problem.”

Dave Sargent, the vice president for global vehicle research at J.D. Power and Associates, said that people in the market for buying a car generally fall into one of three categories: those who will buy a domestic car no matter what, those who will buy an imported car no matter what, and those who will buy the best car for the money.

It’s the third group that Toyota has to worry about.

Mr. Sargent said that Toyota should also be concerned with persuading new customers to switch to a Toyota. His firm’s research showed that last year, despite massive recalls, Toyota still fared relatively well in terms of getting existing customers to buy from Toyota again. However, the manufacturer could not convince as many new customers to switch to a Toyota as it normally can. And after yesterday’s recall, he said, “Lexus may see something a little bit similar.”

For the customers who drive a recalled car, Toyota has a chance to handle the situation well.

“It’s an opportunity to show the customer some love, some attention,” he said.

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