Is the Japanese crown of reliability slipping?
Toyota and Nissan are weathering well despite recent recall issues
Build quality: robots weld cars at Nissan’s plant in Sunderland. Photograph: James Sebright/Getty
We were all somewhat stunned when, back in 2009, rumours started to swirl that Toyota was going to be subject to a major recall of vehicles in the US.
And it was not just a case of bringing a few Camrys back in to have a bolt or two tightened; this was a full-on, multimillion-vehicle, multibillion-dollar mediafest, with the brand that once proclaimed it made the “best built cars in the world” right at the centre.
Federal and state investigations ensued; Toyota’s chief executive, Akio Toyoda, had to testify before the US Senate. Nasa was brought in to investigate, and even though not a single European vehicle was involved, the bad publicity dogged Toyota here too. It wasn’t helped by a simultaneous but unrelated issue with brake pedals here. That was a minor issue, but Toyota, stung into action by its US woes, issued a recall for Europe, and things got so out of hand at that point that one tabloid newspaper ran a headline that screamed “Don’t drive your Toyota.”
The frenzy was staggering, but then we had all assumed that Toyota, and other Japanese brands, were infallible. These were the car companies that had come to Europe and the US in the 1970s and 1980s and showed us that solid, day-to-day reliability was a thing we could all have on our driveways.
It may not be as stylish or as prestigious as one of our home-grown brands, but it would start on a cold morning and there was a push-button radio in the dash. No wonder we flocked to the Japanese brands in our thousands.
And we here in Ireland seem to have a particular fondness for cars of the Rising Sun. Other nationalities tend to cluster around brands that come from their country, an entirely understandable form of jingoism. Unencumbered by a national car industry, we instead have taken the solidity of Japanese cars to our hearts. Right now, Toyota is the bestselling brand in the country, and the Nissan Qashqai is the bestselling car.
But is the crown of reliability slipping? The whole unintended-acceleration issue in the US was discovered to be more or less down to driver error, not a manufacturing or electronic fault, but, even so, it’s costing Toyota between €1 billion and €1.2 billion to mop it all up and settle out of court with some claimants.
Meanwhile, last year saw a major cross-brand recall for all the major Japanese car makers. A fault at an airbag supplier used by most of the big brands triggered a worldwide recall of millions of cars, and now there are 14,000 Irish Nissan Micra drivers (and more than 800,000 more around the world) being asked to bring their cars in to be inspected for a possible loose steering-wheel bolt. Again, it’s a relatively minor issue but one that will knock another dent in the Japanese reputation for consistent build quality.