Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Toyota's Clown Decision

Over the past few months, my wife and I started receiving inquiries from car dealers, asking if we wanted to sell our 2010 Toyota Rav4.  The first couple seemed to be ordinary junk mail, but as they kept coming, sometimes with bids sight-unseen (although they could check the VIN for records of any incidents), it became obvious something was going on.  It turns out that the people at Toyota have made a very bad decision again.  Dealers were calling to buy our Rav4, because a lot of customers found out Toyota made a big mistake in their new model.

If you pay close attention, you may notice that the Rav4 no longer has a spare tire.  At first, I thought the commercials meant they had moved the tire from its convenient rear mount, but it turns out they weren't satisfied with normal stupidity.  Nope, the Rav4 no longer has a spare tire at all, not even the weenie donut tire which past idiots thought should replace the useful full spare.  Instead, you get a temporary inflation kit, which may get you going again, as long as your flat is small and only in the tread, but of course this would ruin the old tire even if it would normally be fixable, and the inflation kit would also have to be replaced.  Toyota, to be blunt, made a very bad decision, and one which will hurt its brand.

To see why I say that, let's look at the decision.  First, what upside is there in getting of the spare tire?  Well, obviously Toyota makes more money, because if you look you'll see the Rav4's MSRP is about the same as it was when they had a complete package.  Hmmm, you get less but the price is unchanged.   I'm sure Toyota likes it, but it's not something Toyota could pretend made the Rav4 better for customers.  Toyota has said the new Rav4 is lighter without the safety equipment, so it gets better mileage.  Well, the 2011 Rav4 had the spare and got 24 mpg in the city (EPA), while the 2013 model ... also gets 24 mpg city.  So Toyota doesn't look too smart there.  And that's it for upside; unless you really like the look of the new model so much that you don't care about what you'll do if you get a flat in bad weather, have a blowout, or face any number of real world conditions, there is no upside.

Now for the downside.  I'm 53 years old, and I have seen all kinds of tire situations.  I've had sidewall punctures, one blowout where the tire simply ceased to exist, one where the tread fell off ... you get the idea.  The point is, if you drive long enough, sooner or later you will have a flat tire where the equivalent of fix-a-flat will be useless.  And if it happens somewhere you can't get help quickly, like on a road trip with your family, not having a spare tire becomes a very serious matter indeed.  No, Toyota won't get sued for being cheap and showing they don't care about safety, but they have forgotten what built their brand, and why they should – first and foremost – make quality and true service the foundation of their product.  The people who have long experience in driving know the need for a full-size spare tire; they are already displeased by Toyota’s craven attempt to pass off a cheaper, less safe auto.  Those who have not experienced a serious road incident will not be happy to find themselves essentially stranded because some marketing guy in Japan figured short-term profits were more important than taking care of our customers.  The bottom line here is that there’s no way to spin this as anything but putting profits ahead of people, and that never sits well with customers.  Representatives for Toyota only made things worse when they claimed most people don’t know how to change a spare tire.  Insulting your customers after cheating them is not a wise business practice.

So why does this hurt the Toyota brand?  Aren’t other companies doing the same thing?  Won’t a lot of young buyers buy the new cars without the spare tire?  Yes and yes, but both of these excuses miss the point for Toyota.  I’m old enough to remember when Toyota was a struggling brand, a company which made a pretty good car but was dismissed as a cheap carmaker, a choice only for someone who could not afford the quality cars.  Toyota built their brand by making sure their cars were economical, safe, and dependable – in other words, a car with no bad surprises.  Not including basic safety equipment is by definition a bad surprise, and the buyers will discover this trick at a time when they are already upset about having a flat tire.  What, exactly, does Toyota think these people will think about Toyota when that happens?  Obviously, the execs at Toyota have stopped paying attention to what customers want and need, just as US automakers did some years back, with the same arrogance that their success will continue simply because they expect it to continue. 

To the people at Toyota, I will be clear:  I bought a Rav4 because you convinced me at the time that it was the safest and most dependable vehicle of its type.  When I buy my next car, it will again be whatever is the safest and most dependable.  A full spare tire is not optional, and I will not consider – even for a moment – any vehicle which does not have one.  I will not be swayed by marketing schtick or what some ‘focus group’ pretends, if you do not provide a product worth my money you will not get it.  There are competitors who want my business, and someone will make a car/truck with the safety and dependability I require.  Right now, I have no intention of buying a Toyota, not only because you took out a vital part of the vehicle, but also because you showed that my needs and opinion are not considered in your brand.  The best course for Toyota would be to recognize their blunder, admit it, then work on rebuilding the trust they have violated.