Is the Japanese crown of reliability slipping?

Toyota and Nissan are weathering well despite recent recall issues


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.

Cross-brand recall
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.

Paul Healy, the editor of Car Adviser magazine, is something of a Japanese-car expert. I asked if he thought the recent recalls were knocking Japan off its reliability perch.

“It’s probably not as much a case of that, more that recalls are part and parcel of the industry, and it’s unfortunate that the Japanese manufacturers seem to have been hit with them the most at the moment.

“A lot of this could probably be attributed to the woes that Toyota suffered over the past couple of years with the unintended-acceleration problem – that issue put recalls at the forefront of our minds, so they become bigger stories. But Mercedes, Porsche, Ferrari and everyone else are all subject to recalls. It’s just not big news.

“There is a case for that as the cars become more and more complicated, there’s more for the quality-control teams to check through before a car gets shipped off the end of the line. So it’s almost inevitable that with so many systems to look at, something will slip through the cracks.

“The Nissan one that came to light two weeks ago, and was related to the steering wheel, dates back about 11 years and wasn’t specific to one plant. If it had been just, say, the Sunderland plant, then you could pinpoint the problem there, but this one occurred across all plants where the Micra was built, and it looks like there was a bigger problem at play. Thankfully it seems to have been caught before it became a bigger problem.”

Doug McLure-Fisher, managing director of the aftermarket-warranty provider Warranty Direct, agrees and says that reputations can be saved by early action: “The reputation for reliability that Japanese manufacturers have built up is down to several factors. Based on the data we get from our policies, it would certainly appear that they tend to focus more on durability than on style.

“At the same time, manufacturers are all under pressure to deliver both performance and economy in today’s market. As a result, reliability is often sacrificed, as carmakers are forced to make compromises, but it seems that the Japanese marques often represent a much better long-term purchase.”

Swift action
“Japanese manufacturers do seem to get a hard time for recalls, but when swift action is taken a recall should be commended.

“Part of the problem recently is simply that the high-profile recalls have been made by Japanese makes. In reality, recalls for various technical reasons across the board are probably more frequent than the average motorist would suspect – it’s just that they don’t all hit the headlines.”

Indeed so. Part of the big problem with Toyota’s recalls was that the issues came to light in the public, and in the media, before Toyota admitted to knowing about them. Indeed, the “sticky pedal” issue that triggered the huge European Toyota recall first came to light in the Irish and UK markets.

Apparently it was our traditionally mild, damp climate that was causing the issue, and Toyota first knew of the problem back in 2008, even though the recall wasn’t issued until 2010. That could have been disastrous for the brand, but eventually Toyota got its public-relations engine up to speed, and its damage control was very effective. Much of which, according to Toyota Ireland’s managing director, Dave Shannon, can be put down to the customer.

“We recalled 18,000 cars in February 2010, and only 0.01 per cent actually had a problem that needed to be fixed – and thankfully, touch wood, there were no accidents; no one got hurt. We had to learn crisis management in the glare of publicity, but we decided that, whatever else, we had to do the right thing even it it meant a bloody nose for a short time.”

Certainly, Toyota made a swift recovery from its woes, but it had to take on a long, unpleasant makeover of its internal processes to do so. Yoshimi Inaba, one of Toyota’s most senior US executives, testified to the congressional hearing into unintended acceleration: “We did not hide it, but it was not properly shared. We need to do a much better job sharing what we know in Europe with the US, to see if there is any danger to American consumers.” And vice-versa, one would hope.

On a hair trigger
It does seem to be, though, that rather than Japanese carmakers actually becoming worse, a combination of two things is happening.

On the one hand, European and Korean brands are catching up in the reliability race, and are trumpeting that fact with ever more eye-catching warranties. Hyundai now offers a five-year unlimited-mileage warranty, and it can hardly be a coincidence that Kia extended its seven-year warranty, first introduced in 2006, to its entire range in early 2010, just as Toyota was issuing its global nine-million-vehicle recall.

On the other, the public and the media are now on a hair trigger for the sound of the word “recall”, especially if it involves a Japanese brand. Are we right to be? It probably depends on what the next big recall is, and how dangerous the problem is that triggers it.

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