Is the Prius Broken? What are Toyota’s Quality Woes Really All About?

Toyota’s certainly been having a hell of a time recently. Millions and millions of cars recalled, public relations disasters, seemingly aloof executives—the scope of the whole thing is so mind-boggling to me that it’s almost hard to imagine that this is the same Toyota I grew up with. So I’ll admit it, I’m a Toyota fan boy. My family owned way more Toyotas than anything else and my first car was an ’84 Tercel hand-me-down I got from my parents.

But none of that stops me from objectively evaluating the company and judging for myself if there really is a reason to stop buying Toyotas. Certainly now that even their untarnishable Prius seems to be tarnishing, my trust in Toyota is more shaken than at any point in my life. On top of the stuck accelerator pedals, the Prius braking problems threaten to put a stake through the very heart of a car company that hundreds of millions of customers worldwide hold so dear.

But when I take a step back, I’m left wondering what this is actually all about.

Late last year I wrote a piece in which I questioned whether or not the current Toyota quality issues would actually translate to customer dissatisfaction or a cognizance of some bigger overall quality issue. In that post, I also talked about how if a flagship car like the Prius were to go down in flames it could irreversibly damage Toyota’s reputation. Well, based on what we’re all hearing in the mainstream media, it now seems that all of that is coming to pass.

But is it really? Is this whole situation more of a result of a disproportionate mainstream media feeding frenzy than a truly vast and conspiratorial implosion of Toyota? Truthfully I’ve been kind of disgusted by the foaming mouths within the mainstream media on this issue. Toyota’s been a quality brand for decades. This is the first time in what, 40 years, that anything serious has happened?

The vast majority of Toyota owners are still happy with their cars. And you know what? If it weren’t for Toyota, other automakers wouldn’t have had any impetus to make better cars. We wouldn’t have the super quality Fords of the last 3 years without the quality Toyotas of the last 40. Toyota has been a consistent innovator and has single handedly made hybrids a household word—something the world owes a great debt of gratitude for. Not only that, Toyota is on the cusp of using their market leverage with the Prius to spread the cult of hybrid across all market segments, from subcompacts to minivans.

Certainly Toyota has been kind of doltheaded in their slow-witted response to the current quality issues, but I feel like that’s more of a result of the fact that even Toyota themselves couldn’t believe they were witnessing a quality issue of this scope… just as to consumers, to Toyota execs it was unfathomable that it could be happening. Can you blame them? They’ve been bulletproof for decades.

But even though they were slow to start responding, the current level of response certainly has shown that Toyota wants to please their customers and takes safety seriously. And you know what, the braking problem with the Prius is not something singular to Toyota’s hybrids. It now turns out that Ford has quietly admitted design flaws in the new Fusion Hybrid brakes that they have subsequently issued a software fix for—just like Toyota.

These types of braking problems are a result of the fact that all cars are more and more dependent on software, and that hybrids present a special challenge with regenerative braking versus mechanical braking and when to make the switch between the two. It’s a balance between fuel efficiency and performance that hybrid designers are still tweaking. Of course, because Toyota has so many more hybrids on the road than any other manufacturer, their customers were the first to notice. And in case you missed it, Toyota’s already issued a software fix for the Prius braking problem, showing just how easy it is to tweak.

So what is it? Why are we so intent on tearing down a company that has been so good to us for so long? When it comes to quality issues, why would we expect a company with such a good track record to all of a sudden start building crappy cars? The fact of the matter is they aren’t. This is a bump in the road… A wake up call to Toyota that even they can mess up sometimes. In those immortal words, “This too shall pass.” Toyota is not crumbling. They still make good cars. If you have one that needs to be fixed, take it in to the dealer and move on. Ten years from now we’ll all be in love with Toyota again. Huggy, huggy. Kissy, kissy. And we all went down the road feeling warm and fuzzy again.

But seriously, I feel like something about this Great Recession makes the public hungry to tear down even our immortals. Tiger Woods. Toyota. It’s as if we, as a society, are so collectively upset that we’re worse off than we were 2 years ago that we want even the good guys among us to suffer just so that everybody is miserable. We can’t have anybody else be successful or better off than the rest of us now can we? This type of reactionaryism is so petty. For a rational guy like myself, it just makes me sick.

As for the mainstream media’s response to Toyota’s quality issues, it’s so obvious that they feel impotent when compared to the bloggers because the bloggers started covering these Toyota quality issues months ago. It’s as if the mainstream media has to make up for their growing redundancy with volume and quantity. Meanwhile, here I am, a blogger doing blogger work and I want nothing more than traditional media outlets I can depend on for well-reasoned and critical reporting—taking the blogger leads and sussing them out, not taking the blogger leads and making them louder and less informative.

Nick Chambers

Not your traditional car guy.