On the Toyota Menu this Week: Crow

(AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)
Toyota will endure perhaps the two most distasteful aspects of Toyotagate this week: First, a recall on their crown jewel, the Prius. Second, a calling on the carpet Wednesday the 24th in front of lawmakerswho will barely grasp the answers to their own questions but have a lot of cameras there as they don't.

The Prius recall will only affect the current 2010 model. At issue are concerns about a momentary delay in braking under certain conditions, as reported by about 900 consumers. Toyota has sold about 330,000 of the recalled cars since it was introduced last May.

The Prius recall hurts because the car is a smash hit of technological and engineering proportions and Toyota's only really distinctive car. Also, it's made in Japan so they can't blame any Hoosiers for screwing this one up.

The Congressional hearings will hurt because it always hurts you have to explain the intricacies of a complicated business to a panel of lawmakers who general expertise as best.

Toyota's CEO for North America, Yoshimi Inaba, will be subject to doubting questions delivered with the scolding solemnity of an inquiry into tainted baby formula. His company will likely come out looking either shifty or shiftier than it deserves -- there are no other outcomes.

Yes, the Toyota recalls are unprecedentedly large and based on a serious potential issue. But given the number of Toyota cars are on the road and being sold (one every three minutes in the case of the Camry alone), if these problems manifested themselves in any real percentages we'd have bodies strewn along America's roads.

But that is not the case because, as with most big automotive recalls, the net is flung exceptionally wide in a massive abundance of caution while the carmaker and its products get tarred hard.

We don't need to shed any tears for Toyota, a big rich company that will still be around next week and happy to sell you a Camry.

But regret is always in order when a company that makes great products gets sloppily painted with a broad, ugly brush by sound bite reporting and the furrowed brows & pointed fingers of congressional committee members.
What Toyota really needs to be scolded for is handling this thing so badly.

I have been asked repeatedly whether this episode is opening the door for GM to re-take the #1 spot in America from Toyota. I doubt it, since Toyota didn't bump GM in the first place -- GM did.

All General Motors had to do in the 70's, 80's and 90's was make cars merely as good and market-focused as Toyota -- and under a sustainable business model. They already had dominant brand loyalty, a pervasive dealer network, domestic allegiance and sheer momentum. So thinking Toyota's stumbles now will drive people to GM is like assuming that someone will become a fish lover because they discovered Kiwi fruit.

What am I watching next? Long term fallout. Toyota itself predicts it will lose 80,000 sales in the current year. They wish. Kelley Blue Book is knocking points off the resale value of late model Toyotas right and left. And BrandIndex is plotting a consumer confidence curve for the Toyota brand that looks like Francis Gary Powers is flying it over Sverdlovsk.

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    Brian Cooley joined CNET in 1995 and always comes at technology from the real consumer's point of view. He brings his high energy, often skeptical style to all avenues of CNET coverage, with an emphasis on car tech. You'll also find him frequently on television, radio and the TV screens at Costco!