ToyotaÂ’s Future in America

Toyota is testing the premise that you shouldn’t care what people write about you as long as they spell your name correctly.

The general media has consistently spelled “Toyota” correctly during the current spree of reporting on the giant car manufacturer’s problems, and there are those in the industry who say that is all they have got right. 

Meanwhile, auto industry insiders and consumers are asking what will happen to Toyota next: Are U.S. government regulators really out to get the Japanese company as many in Japan believe because of the Obama administration’s ties to the United Auto Workers union and its support of GM and Chrysler bailouts? Has Toyota’s vaunted quality system suddenly gone terribly awry?

Interestingly, individual American car buyers don’t seem all that much concerned by the “crisis.” Despite a deluge of negative publicity about the Japanese brand, March sales results demonstrated that a substantial number of consumers believe that Toyota brand vehicles offer just the kind of excellent value they’d like to put their money behind. Of course, that value story has been enhanced by a round of incentives never seen on Toyotas, but experts would submit that the chance to get a 0 percent financing deal would not trump the safety of one’s family if consumers truly believed there was a credible threat to that safety. Again, despite the hysteria fueled by an inflammatory press, consumers have apparently realized that there is far more smoke than fire in the reports of mechanical and electronic gremlins bedeviling Toyotas, and with compelling offers staring them in the face from a brand that is famous for being reticent about using incentives, they have jumped off the couch to buy Toyota vehicles. 

As we write this, it looks like Toyota’s retail market share for March will be about 20 percent, which would outscore its share in January, before the bulk of the unintended acceleration crisis was splattered across the nightly newscasts.

Perhaps the turning point in the crisis came when Toyota took on the claims of Jim Sikes, the motorist who said his Toyota Prius accelerated to speeds of 90 mph against his will. Toyota officials were able to use the vehicle’s “black box” data recorder and other forensic incident-recreation techniques to demonstrate that Sikes’ claims might have been fabricated. That case, plus a similar New York case involving another Prius, has apparently stemmed the tide of public sentiment against the brand. Do the two cases prove beyond a shadow of doubt that none of the cases of alleged unintended acceleration has merit? No, they do not. But consumers have certainly decided now is a good time to buy a Toyota.

What’s going on here? Weren’t people being killed by Toyotas? Well, perhaps some cars were at fault, but Toyota has built a laudable amount of equity and loyalty among the American buying public over the course of the past 30 years. With the addition of eye-catching incentives, that equity tipped the scales in the Japanese brand’s favor. Certainly the deluge of negative publicity had negative effects on Toyota’s brand image, but when push came to shove, the general public has been willing to cut the Japanese brand a break.

Domestic Cars: Most Problem-free

Last week we told you that several domestic vehicle brands just aren’t getting the recognition they deserve for product reliability and dependability. 

That has long been suspected by those of us in the industry, but it was confirmed by the recently released J.D. Power and Associates 2010 U.S. Vehicle Dependability Study, which looks at the performance of 2007 model year vehicles.

Porsche led the overall nameplate rankings in 2010 -- consistent with its performance in the J.D. Power and Associates 2007 Initial Quality Study, which measures new-vehicle quality at 90 days of ownership -- and Ford’s Lincoln luxury division improved by six rank positions from 2009, to place second in the nameplate rankings. Rounding out the top five nameplates were (in descending order) Buick, Lexus and Mercury.

While three of the top five nameplates in dependability were domestic brands, the U.S.-based manufacturers enjoyed similar success at the model level, and that is important since individuals don’t buy a brand but an individual vehicle. With this in mind, the domestics’ performance at the model level is even more impressive. Seven of the 10 models with the lowest incidence of problems in the industry are from Ford and General Motors, including the 2007 model-year Buick Lacrosse, Buick Lucerne, Cadillac DTS, Ford Five Hundred, Lincoln MKZ, Mercury Milan and Mercury Montego.

The Cadillac DTS was the industry’s overall leader in dependability, recording the fewest problems, with just 76 problems per 100 vehicles. This marks the first time in more than a decade that a model from a domestic automaker has achieved the lowest PP100 score in this vehicle dependability study.

While the domestic brands were resurgent in vehicle reliability, some brands that have a reputation for strength in that area continued to reinforce that perception. Toyota has been buried in bad publicity for the last several months, but the brand continues to perform well in long-term dependability. It garnered four segment leader awards, more than any other nameplate in 2010. The Highlander crossover, Prius hybrid, Sequoia SUV and Tundra pickup were each top performers in their respective segments.

Honda received three segment awards for the CR-V small crossover, Fit small car and Ridgeline midsize pickup. Lincoln captured two awards for the Mark LT large SUV and MKZ sedan. In addition, Audi, BMW, Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Ford, Lexus, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz and Mercury each received a model segment award.

Overall vehicle dependability improved by 7 percent in 2010 to an average of 155 PP100, compared with 167 PP100 in 2009 -- a rate that is consistent with historical industry gains. In addition to the improvement in overall dependability, the rate of component replacement has also been reduced from 2009. Approximately 65 percent of owners indicate they replaced a vehicle component in 2010, compared with 68 percent in 2009.

“The improvements in long-term dependability and component replacement rates are good news for both consumers and manufacturers,” said David Sargent, vice president of global vehicle research at J.D. Power and Associates. “Manufacturers benefit from lower warranty expenses, while consumers incur lower maintenance and repair costs, as well as less inconvenience.”

The study also found that long-term dependability has a significant positive effect on repurchase intent. Among owners who say they did not experience problems with their vehicle, 43 percent indicate they “definitely will” repurchase their current brand. This figure declined to 28 percent among owners, who say they experienced at least one problem with their vehicle.

The 2010 U.S. Vehicle Dependability Study is based on responses from more than 52,000 original owners of 2007 model year vehicles. The study was fielded in 2009, between October and December.

Car Brands That Get No Respect

As vehicle dependability continues to rise, your chances of being stranded by the side of the road with a dead car are down.

But some car brands are finding that consumer perception lags behind their dependability story.

That’s the big news out of this year’s edition of the just-released J.D. Power and Associates U.S. Vehicle Dependability Study. Apparently, 25 of 36 vehicle brands improved in long-term dependability in 2010 compared with their performance in 2009, continuing a steady uptrend of industry-wide vehicle dependability. But according to the research firm, Cadillac, Ford, Hyundai, Lincoln and Mercury are just not getting the props they deserve.

Car Brand Perception vs. Reality
The study measures problems that original owners of three-year-old (in this case, 2007 model year) vehicles experiment, including 198 different problem symptoms across all areas of the vehicle. Overall dependability is determined by the level of problems experienced per 100 vehicles, with a lower score reflecting higher quality.

This year, Porsche led the “nameplate” rankings with a mark of 110. Lincoln was second at 114, and Buick and Lexus tied at 115. But perhaps the bigger news is that several brands that scored above industry average -- among them Lincoln, Buick, Mercury, Ford, Hyundai and Cadillac -- still find themselves shunned by a portion of the buying public, due to concerns about their dependability. 

According to J.D. Power and Associates, among brands included in the study, Cadillac, Ford, Hyundai, Lincoln and Mercury have the greatest discrepancy between actual dependability and consumer perception. At the same time several brands that are generally well-regarded for dependability -- including BMW, Volvo, Nissan, Mazda and Scion -- were ranked below the industry average.

“Producing vehicles with world-class quality is just part of the battle for automakers; convincing consumers to believe in their quality is equally important,” said David Sargent, vice president of global vehicle research at J.D. Power and Associates. “It takes considerable time to positively change consumer perceptions of quality and dependability -- sometimes a decade or more -- so it is vital for manufacturers to continually improve quality and also to convince consumers of these gains.”

What Car Brand Manufacturers Can Do
According to Sargent, car manufacturers can take several approaches to help reinforce perceptions of high quality in consumers’ minds. They can provide extended warranties, which demonstrate a brand’s faith in its products; incorporate features, materials and finishes in cars that have a rich feel; and ensure that new car models launch with better quality than their predecessors. In addition, automakers need to increase communication efforts about their high quality and dependability through social media, like blogs, Facebook and Twitter, aside from traditional channels.

The vehicle dependability study is used extensively by vehicle manufacturers worldwide to help design and build better vehicles, which typically translates to higher resale values. Consumers can benefit from the study by making more informed choices for both new- and used-vehicle purchases. Among new-vehicle shoppers, perception of quality and dependability is the most influential factor in their decision to purchase a specific vehicle model.

The 2010 U.S. Vehicle Dependability Study is based on responses from more than 52,000 original owners of 2007 model-year vehicles. The study was fielded in 2009, between October and December.

Increase the Battery Life of Your RV

A month or so ago, we offered you tips for keeping your car’s starting battery in tip-top condition. But many of you also have an RV (and a boat) equipped with another type of battery, the deep-cycle kind, to power the various electronic gear you have in your RV. 

According to statistics, the average battery life for the non-sealed lead acid batteries typically used in those applications is somewhere between 24 months and 48 months, even though some owners could swear it’s even less. And replacing those batteries isn’t just a hassle: It’s also downright expensive.

Batteries actually thrive on regular uncharging and recharging, but the way most people use their RVs and boats makes that nearly impossible. Many RVs lay dormant for most of the year, only to be used for the occasional weekend trip and the two-week family vacation in the summer. This type of use shortens battery life to the point that many owners simply buy new batteries every season.

But it doesn’t have to be that way, according to Terry Fellner, a battery service veteran and president of Thermoil Inc., a manufacturer of products designed to enhance the lives of non-sealed lead acid batteries.

“Deep-cycle batteries require more maintenance than a starting battery and are more expensive because of the amount of power they need to generate,” he told us. “So it really does pay off for owners to take some basic precautions and protect their investment in these types of batteries. Many of these batteries will just flat out die if they are left dormant for months at a time, so owners should really be vigilant in their service of them.”

Below are four tips for better RV battery life:

1. Know why RV batteries “die” in the first place. 
The most common causes of battery failure are loss of electrolyte due to heat or overcharging (“running dry”), corrosion, sulfation, undercharging, vibration, freezing, use of tap water rather than distilled water and just plain old age.

2. Consider the climate at the location of your RV. 
All batteries self-uncharge when they are not in use, and warm weather actually makes things worse. In cold climates, batteries lose about 3 percent of their charge per month; in warmer climates, a battery can lose 8 to10 percent of its charge per month, just from sitting there.

If your RV or boat is not in use, charge the battery at least once every other month if it’s in a cold climate and once a month if it’s in a warmer one. Partially uncharged batteries deteriorate faster than fully charged ones.

3. Watch the volts too.
When not in use, your battery should never fall below 12.45 volts or it will start to sulfate and go bad. Once sulfated, batteries become very difficult to completely charge back up. In fact, trying to charge a battery once it has sulfated usually heats up the battery, which warps the plates and ultimately destroys it.

4. Investigate using a “battery de-mister.” 
A battery de-mister increases battery life and shelf life, maintains battery chemistry, reduces charge time, eliminates corrosion and greatly reduces water consumption. It also diminishes the risk of explosion and helps keep your battery working under any condition from -50 F to 400 F, according to Fellner.

“RVs and boats are serious investments for their owners, and their users need reliability from their batteries not only for enjoyment, but also for safety,” says Fellner. “Taking care of the battery not only protects your financial investment, but it also protects the owners and their families, who rely on those vehicles being able to get them where they are going and back again.”

GPS Shows Big Brother Your Driving

Without GPS, you’re driving along the highway in your company car, seemingly free as a bird.

But how would you like it if someone back in corporate headquarters could suddenly find out exactly where you are, where you’ve been and how fast you’ve been going?

Sure, you might acknowledge that the company has good reasons to want to monitor your driving behavior -- or at least be assured that you’re not drag racing for pink slips on company time. After all, driving behavior is the largest single contributor to driving safety and fuel efficiency.

But are you comfortable with the idea that your company can track your every move behind the wheel?  Several firms are now offering these capabilities to corporate clients, large a small.

GPS Option No. 1: GPS Insight
GPS Insight, a supplier of tracking hardware and software for commercial and government fleets, has just announced a new Posted Speed Limit Report as well as Posted Speed Graphs and histograms to help clients identify reckless driving patterns. The report shows management where drivers are driving fast or slow relative to the actual or “most likely” speed limit. (“I was just obeying the most likely speed limit, officer.”)

The report comes with graphing enhancements that allow customers to graph both long-term trends as well as the 30 minutes before and after each individual “speeding event.”  With one click, system users can map that 60-minute period of time to better understand the context of the speeding activity.

Users can crunch up to three months’ worth of driving data at a time to get an accurate picture of aggressive driving behavior and pinpoint those intentionally extending their drive time to gain more overtime -- another dastardly ploy.

“With this enhancement to GPS Insight, customers can now easily rank their drivers in terms of aggressive driving patterns and drill down instantly to exact whereabouts of excessive speed incidents,” said Robert Donat, president of GPS Insight. “Using Street View, our customers can also easily visualize the road conditions present and even ratify the data by looking for a speed limit sign.”

GPS Option No. 2: GreenRoad 360
Another company, called GreenRoad, offers GreenRoad 360. This system offers drivers and fleet managers comprehensive preventive feedback, analysis, reporting and coaching on drivers’ abilities, maneuvers and patterns of vehicle use -- like frequent stops at motels, for instance.

The GPS service combines real-time automated driver coaching with Web-based applications that continuously rate driving skills for all types of vehicles, including trucks, buses, vans and cars. Fleet management and safety professionals can gain insight into driving behaviors and use the tools they need to help drivers achieve measurable safety and fuel-efficiency goals.

According to the company, a typical GreenRoad customer sees up to a 50 percent reduction in crash costs and up to a 10 percent reduction in fuel consumption within the first year. That’s why many companies might get excited about using GPS services like those provided by these two companies and their competitors. 

Some might say, however, that there is a fine line between what should remain private and what a company needs to know about its employees.