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2 Years Behind! Toyota Struggles Playing Tech Catch Up

The Toyota brand is loved in the USA but it's looking lost compared to the competition. Hopefully the company will consult its GPS soon.

Becky Graebner


June 13, 2013 - 9:00 am
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Two years earlier…2012 Ford Focus.

Winter 2012, I went shopping for a new car.

The Contenders:

2012 Mazda3

2012 Ford Focus

2012 Toyota Corolla

2012 Nissan Sentra

The Winner:

2012 Ford Focus

I honestly went into this game with the intention of buying a Toyota. That being said, I can admit without any pre-existing prejudice that the Corolla was the biggest let-down in my car shopping lineup. This took me completely by surprise because I had been indoctrinated to think Toyota made perfect machines, any of which I would love to drive. Wrong! This experience allowed me to see how much Toyota was slipping — and it was very sad.

The Corolla I drove was priced around $19,500 and was as bland as a piece of burned toast. The salesman was trying to sell me its CD player and A/C as major innovations. I also think it had a tape deck. I honestly thought the man was joking. It didn’t come standard with cruise control (strike one), it was priced very high for the (lack of) features inside (strike two), the quality of the materials was very low (strike three), and it had zero spunk on the road (strike four). I left very depressed — it didn’t even have the “standard features” from other cars.

When I drove the 2012 Focus (the Euro design), I thought I was in one of those hidden-camera Ford commercials. Legitimately, I looked around for a camera, saying out loud, “this cannot be a Ford!” The car had two computer screens—one for the radio/phone/CD and the other to serve as my trip computer and alert system. My steering wheel had buttons to control almost everything in the car — helpful in rush-hour traffic in Washington, D.C.

It had a USB plug in, the SYNC system for my smart phone, real leather, some definite pep in its driving, and, although controversial, the dual-clutch trans — which I do like. I got the 2012 Ford Focus SEL, fully loaded, for under $19k. Bam. Sorry, Toyota, you lost me. My next car? It will probably be a Ford.


And two years later…the 2014 Toyota Corolla.

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Becky Graebner moved to the east coast from Wisconsin in 2011. She is still a rabid Badger and Packer fan, although she does support the Caps in hockey. She enjoys Formula 1 and Indycar. She likes the eastern seaboard but does miss track days with friends and family at Elkhart Lake and the Milwaukee Mile. Her favorite drivers are Kenny Brack and Robby Gordon.

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All Comments   (7)
All Comments   (7)
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Over-reliance of customer loyalty was one of the things that killed GM. (Yes, it was killed - then re-animated into zombie Government Motors - it will "die" again (maybe several deaths and re-animations)).

They also appear to be trying to participate in every alternate fuel scheme imaginable rather than trying to figure out which technology is going to prevail and then focus on that technology. This is a sign that they do not intend to be an industry leader - they just want to be in position to follow whoever does take the lead. That's a bad corporate culture.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Ford has tried very hard to stay ahead of the curve and they've succeed. The cars are innovative and beautiful. The only issue I had with Ford compacts was the lack of legroom in the back seat. If you have a tall teenager they'll be uncomfortable back there.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Toyota and Honda make cars for folks who plan to get 200,000 miles out of them. Not everyone does.

The same is true, I think, to a lesser extent, of Subaru (great cars, but not very mainstream) and Mazda (traditionally not as consistent as Toyota or Honda).

If electronic doodads and gimcrackery is your thing, you're probably right to look elsewhere.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
But if you can get just as many reliable miles from a Ford as from a Toyota or Honda (as is currently the case) - then why not get the "doodads" too?

Plus those "doodads" are highly valued by young people -- people who will be buying a lot more cars during the remainder of their lifetimes than 50-something technophobes who stick with their big paper maps cuz those GPS thingys are just too darn confusing.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The problem is, that's a big if. Most cars are designed to fall apart by about 140 or 150 thousand miles. Ford's older, rear-wheel-drive vehicles (like the Crown Vic) I think were actually pretty well-designed for the long haul -- a buddy of mine kept his '96 Crown Vic for about 250,000 miles. Based on what I read, however, the virtue of good longevity hasn't applied to very many of Ford's front-drivers. But I could be wrong.

My opinion is based on lots and lots of reading, driving, talking to various mechanics, anecdotal information, you name it. But it is an opinion.

Truth is, you can make just about any car last as long as you want, so long as the body/frame is good and you're willing to pay for repairs. It's that last part that gets most people. When your twelve-year-old Chevy Cavalier loses a transmission and you think, geez, do I really want to put $2000 into that old thing? That's when cars die.

And that's why Toyotas and Hondas tend to stick around awhile. After twelve years, they're not necessarily more fun to drive than old Chevies nor more prestigious nor more comfortable. But they tend to be better engineered and better built, and require fewer repairs, especially on the big-ticket items.

There are some signs in recent years of cutting corners at Toyota and Honda. But it takes a long time to lose a sterling reputation -- and a long time to get it back. The American car companies lost their reputations for building quality cars many, many years ago -- see Brock Yates' book, "The Decline and Fall of the American Automobile Industry", for example. Though published in 1985, it reads like a history of the years that followed. Mr. Yates saw it all coming.

In a nutshell, Detroit was seduced by their accountants. Accountants are important. They should have a seat on the board right next to the CEO. They should be allowed to venture opinions on cost, cash flow, and all sorts of financial things. Then they should be thanked, ushered to the door, and shut out of the meeting while the rest of the board makes its decisions. The Big Three were ruined by chasing the will o' the wisp named "profit margin." It works like this: the accountants tell the engineers they need to make their $30 part into a $20 part, as it will save $10 per car sold, and with five million cars sold, that will be an extra $50 million profit. Dig?

Sounds great. It also sounds like you're taking your customer base for granted. $50 million extra profit is one side of the coin. The other side is you just sold a car with a cheapened part to five million people. Eventually, they will sell those cars to five million other people as used cars. When the cheapness of the part manifests itself, it will come as an unwelcome repair bill. Sell enough of those cheapened parts, and eventually your entire reputation is gone. Chevy had the Corvair ("unsafe at any speed") that gave birth to Ralph Nader's career, for the want of a rear suspension part that was taken out. Vegas rusted in the showroom and burned oil like a war-torn Iraqi oil rig. The Olds diesel was and is a joke, they were known to last as much as 5000 miles. Ford had the exploding Pinto.

Has Detroit seen the light? Time will tell. Tell it on someone else's nickel, not mine.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Anecdotally, the young people/Millenials I know don't seem to have the attachment to Toyota and Honda like the previous generations. A young-ish female relative of mine bought a Kia Soul without giving a second thought to a Civic or Corolla because the Soul's cute and funky and the Hondas/Toyotas too stodgy. My kids and their friends show very little interest in Japanese cars. They seem to look at Honda and Toyota the way I used to look at Oldsmobiles.

The flip side is that parents that buy cars for their college-bound kids seem to mostly go Toyota or Honda, so maybe this will make them future customers of the kids.

In the 80's I got stuck with several lousy GM/Ford cars while friends who were smart enough to get a Tercel or a Civic had ultra-reliable cars that the grew to love. They became customers for life and I became a Detroit hater. I don't think the Millenials, however, have had bad experiences with Detroit products. They seem to take reliability as a "given" with all cars. They are the customers of the future.

1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I have owned American cars from each of the Big Three (Plymouth, Ford, Cadillac); a niche-market American car (Checker); an Italian car (Fiat); a German car (VW); and five Japanese cars (four Toyotas and a Honda). I would never own another Italian or German car based on my experience. All of my Japanese cars have ranged from decent to great, reliability-wise -- my '87 Toyota Cressida wasn't stellar by any means, but still not horrible. Of the American cars I've owned, only one -- a Cadillac -- has angered me sufficiently to the point I would never buy another one. My first Caddy was an '89, and it was an excellent car. Based on that experience, I bought a '97 Sedan DeVille that I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy.

Why was I even looking a Caddies? I have always despised GM stuff that wasn't named Buick. But I like to travel, and my wife, whom I love dearly, is (regarding car seats) the modern incarnation of the princess in "The Princess and the Pea" fairy tale. She won't travel gladly unless she has the best seat money can buy, and that... happens to be a Cadillac.

Too bad the A/C compressor, the A/C condenser, the electronic anti-theft system, the electronics under the dash, the rack & pinion steering (went through three of those), the sound system, the water pump, and the highly-vaunted Northstar V8 engine weren't of similar high quality. And that's just from off the top of my head. Keep that Caddie on the road was like having a kid in Harvard.

So I hear American cars are better these days. Glad to hear it. But I also heard that same thing when I bought my last Caddy.

I don't have much to base an opinion on, regarding Korean cars. Consumer Reports says they're improving, but their reliability as they post it doesn't seem much better than GM's. But even German cars can be fairly reliable in the first 60,000 miles or so. That was our experience with our '82 VW Jetta diesel. It's the long-term reliability that I'm interested in. Young people don't get that. Yet. But there's a reason why Hondas and Toyotas hold their value well.

In fact, at the risk of losing my conservative card, probably the best long-term reliability bet is one of the newer Toyota Priuses. They don't have belts. They don't have a starter. They don't have alternator. They don't have a conventional transmission (it's a CVT). They do have an industrial-strength electric motor that takes on the jobs of both starter and alternator, and those things are not going to wear out. The battery caused people to worry, but they're proven now to not be so bad after all. The technology is proven. These cars have the potential for a million miles.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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