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My Toyota

A Commentary By Susan Estrich

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

It was a great car. A 1981 Toyota Corolla, white with blue interior, and no extras. Exactly $5,000 -- $1,000 down, the rest financed. To be honest, I really wanted a Honda Accord. My mother had one, and what a dream that car was. But it was also $1,000 more, and while that might not sound like so much, believe me, it was. So I "settled" for the Toyota. After nine years behind the wheel of a 1972 yellow Ford Maverick, it seemed like a very significant step up.

And it was. I don't remember that car breaking down in the seven years I drove it. Not once. My goddaughter nicknamed the Maverick "clunker" for obvious reasons. Not the Toyota.

There was a flat tire or two along the way, but that is hardly the car's fault. Someone broke into it (with all my clothes inside) when I drove to Washington, D.C., in 1984 to work on the party platform, but you can't blame the car for that. Of course it didn't have an alarm. For goodness' sake, it didn't have air conditioning or electric windows or a cassette player. It wasn't a traveling entertainment center. It was a car, and it was a great car.

I hit people, people hit me, but no one ever got hurt. I spun around on Storrow Drive in Boston a few times during one snowstorm, but I ended up facing the right direction and made it to the airport. No one ever even stole it, which amazed me, since the Maverick got stolen at least twice that I remember.

In the succeeding years, for all kinds of reasons, I never bought another Toyota. When I took my daughter car shopping, full of stories about my wonderful old Toyota, I faced temporary sticker shock. The salesperson, who probably wasn't yet born in 1981, thought I had lost my mind when I told him I'd paid $5,000 for mine. Must've been a really old one, he said, which was at least nicer than saying the same about me, even if that was what he was really thinking.

But even if I am a long-lapsed Toyota driver, I have always maintained my loyalty to the company. Good cars, I told my kids. Good cars, I told my babysitter (before getting her the Honda she wanted). Good cars, I've told my friends and relatives. When I rent cars, I always request Toyotas.

So it is with some sadness that I have watched Toyota struggle in the wake of recent reports about safety issues. Floor mats? I drive a fancy German car, and the floor mats get stuck under the accelerator pedal all the time. I push them out of the way. Sudden acceleration is another story, and if the gas pedals are indeed defective, it is only right that Toyota recall them, fix them and compensate those who were injured on account of them.

But is Toyota really "worse" than any other car company? Do they deserve public excoriation? Should the legions of loyal Toyota drivers and owners turn their backs on the company? Why?

Cars are very complicated machines, as we all know. The more complicated they become the more opportunities for things to go wrong in ways that even those who build them do not entirely understand. It's just not possible or plausible that Toyota is the only car company out there struggling to keep up with its advanced technology.

I once bought a Mercedes whose transmission was on its way to falling out, a fact that the dealer didn't acknowledge until I brought a male friend with me to the service department. Then there's my daughter's 5-year-old Volvo, which has an outstanding recall notice on the fuel tank -- they have to take care of the 2001-2004 models before they'll fix hers. One of the first cases I worked on as a law clerk a few decades ago involved defective carburetors, which GM was arguing should no longer be considered substantial, since they had managed to delay the case so long that there weren't many on the road anymore.

It was right for Toyota President Akio Toyoda to apologize for the accidents caused by the car company founded by his grandfather. Toyota should apologize and take responsibility. It would be wise to offer rebates and incentives to get the next generation of buyers into its showrooms. The lawyers will do well. But if you ask me, Toyotas are still great cars.

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