Toyota Canada launches nationwide campaign to separate U.S. from Canadian issues

Toyota Canada officials acknowledged Monday that it is “unusual” by industry standards to recall as many vehicles as the company has, but they hope to put a positive spin on the automaker’s woes through a nationwide media blitz.

MISSISSAUGA, Ont. — Toyota Canada officials acknowledged Monday that it is “unusual” by industry standards to recall as many vehicles as the company has, but they hope to put a positive spin on the automaker’s woes through a nationwide media blitz.

Beginning in Mississauga, Ont., Toyota Canada representatives will tour the country’s major cities this week to demonstrate exactly what went wrong and what they’ve done to fix it. In the process, they hope to convince consumers that much of the negative publicity that has tarnished the company’s reputation stems from events in the U.S. and shouldn’t concern Canadian consumers.

“I think we’ve done some unusual things by industry standards, but we’ve done exactly what Toyota would normally do,” said Toyota Canada managing director Stephen Beatty.

For example, Toyota Canada recently recalled 3,300 Prius hybrids over inconsistent brake feel. This stemmed from the unusual braking system found in hybrid vehicles, which switches between so-called regenerative braking and hydraulic braking systems, depending on the circumstances. Some customers — including just three in Canada, according to Beatty — complained that it felt like the vehicle was accelerating when they hit the brakes on icy or potholed roads.

This was an illusion created by the switch between braking systems and wasn’t dangerous, Beatty said. However, Toyota Canada issued the recall so it could implement a software fix and show customers that it was “exceptionally sensitive” to their concerns, particularly after two other major Toyota recalls worldwide.

“We’ve done everything that we could and should have done under the circumstances, but because these are unprecedented actions, it not surprisingly has caught a lot of attention too,” Beatty said.

“Unfortunately, we live in a global media environment today, and we’re struggling in part with the fact that there were other issues related to floor mats in the U.S. that have influenced the coverage of the Canadian situation.”

Toyota Canada says its main problem has been separating its parent company’s problems in the U.S. market — where a recall of four million vehicles over concerns about pedals getting stuck in floor mats has resulted in a criminal investigation — from what it describes as lesser problems north of the border.

The floor mat issue, which has allegedly contributed to 34 U.S. fatalities since 2000, was not a problem in Canada because vehicles sold here use different floor mats, according to Toyota Canada spokeswoman Sandy DiFelice.

Besides the Prius, Toyota Canada was also involved in another, bigger recall of 270,000 vehicles due to a sticky accelerator pedal. Toyota has rolled out a fix to that problem and to date approximately 30 per cent of the affected vehicles have been repaired, Beatty said.

He emphasized that, unlike the floor mat issue, the sticky pedal problem didn’t cause drivers to lose control of vehicles. However, Toyota is still reprogramming most of its newer vehicles with so-called “brake override software,” which will idle the engine if it senses that both the brake and the accelerator pedal are being depressed at the same time.

Toyota Canada said it has only received five customer complaints related to the sticky pedal problem and three related to the Prius braking issue. Transport Canada says it has received 25 complaints relating to the Prius and 33 relating to the models that were involved in the pedal recall since 2005. Of the latter, two relate to fatalities but Transport Canada has not confirmed whether the deaths were caused by the sticky pedal or another unrelated issue.

In the U.S., federal prosecutors have opened a criminal investigation into Toyota’s safety problems as the company prepares to testify before a congressional hearing this week.

Employees at Toyota plants and dealerships in the U.S. have expressed concern that jobs could be lost if Congress is too hard on the company. But Beatty said the difference between the issues in the U.S. and Canada, as well as Toyota Canada’s quick response to the problems, makes it unlikely that jobs will be lost here.

“If we can do the right thing by our existing customers then I believe that the brand strength is going to be quite high,” he said. “Could you have a short term impact? Sure, but I think longer term, people are going to look back and say, ’Toyota responded exactly the way you’d expect Toyota to respond.”’

Beatty said preliminary data indicates Toyota Canada’s sales were up in February compared to a year earlier, and conversations he had with consumers at the Toronto auto show last week indicated “a strong sense of support.”

Toyota has two assembly plants in southern Ontario that employ a total of around 6,500 people. Toyota Canada builds the Corolla, the Matrix and the Lexus RX350 in Cambridge and the RAV4 sport utility vehicle in Woodstock.