Confusion and fear at Toyota dealerships

by Peter Valdes-Dapena, senior writer


NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Toyota drivers are feeling mounting confusion and frustration as they attempt to fix their recalled cars. And Toyota dealers are under the gun as they face sometimes angry customers.

"It's just getting crazy," said Andy Phillips who heads the service department at Sandy Springs Toyota in Georgia. "Well, you know. I'm tired, the phones are exploding and, basically, I've had enough."

laurie_roberts.03.jpg
Laurie Roberts describes himself as a 'Toyota Guy.' He's still driving his Highlander while he waits for a fix,

Toyota Motor Corp. has said it will begin sending dealers parts to make recall repairs this week with actual repairs expected to begin this weekend.

Some dealers now say they'll be ready to make repairs even earlier.

Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood inadvertently frightened many Toyota owners early Wednesday morning when he said, during a hearing on Capitol Hill, that any owner of a car affected by the recall should "stop driving it and take it to a dealer."

LaHood later corrected himself, saying that he only meant that owners should get their cars fixed as soon as possible. But the comment had already been widely reported by then.

"I was at the gym when that was announced and people were freaking out. They were on the treadmill. I can't drive my car, how am I going to get home?" said Lauren Fix, an independent auto writer and consultant.

Toyota released a statement Wednesday afternoon thanking LaHood for the clarification.

Toyota said that owners of vehicles involved in the most recent recall could safely continue to drive them since the problem develops gradually over time and, even in the worst case, is easy to bring under control by simply applying the brakes. In an extreme case drivers may need to shift the car into neutral.

But that advice has already failed to calm many owners who now fear their cars may run out of control.

"I got this beautiful car, now I'm afraid to drive it," said Maria Ciresi of Smithtown, New York. Ciresi owns a Toyota Corolla she bought in November.

After the recall Ciresi spoke to a Toyota Motor Corp. customer service agent who told her it was still safe to drive the car.

"I told her, 'Alright I'll drive the car, and I'll get killed and my children will own Toyota and you'll be first the first one to lose your job,'" she said.

Not every customer is as agitated as Ciresi. Laurie Roberts, a customer at Bay Ridge Toyota in Brooklyn, N.Y., described himself as a "Toyota guy."

Roberts owns a Highlander now and he said he plans to continue driving it until it gets fixed. He's owned seven Toyotas in the past.

Rick Doran, general manager at Arlington Toyota in Jacksonville, Florida, said his customers are mostly taking it all in stride.

"I would have expected it to be completely different than what it is," he said. "We've had people who are concerned, but once we explain what the repairs are going to be and let them know it's a voluntary recall they calm down."

Still, there are some worriers, he said.

"I had a lady yesterday that called me on the phone and just blasted me," he said. "She said she had a scratch on her car but didn't want to drive to the dealer because she didn't want the pedal to stick."

Her car, it turned out, wasn't even part of the recall.

Doran's dealership will be ready to start making recall repairs as early as Wednesday night, he said.

Michael Ianelli, general manager of Bay Ridge Toyota in Brooklyn, N.Y., said his telephones are ringing constantly with customer calls. He sent a letter to his customers, a copy of which is posted at the dealership's Web site.

"Please know that this current news, however troubling, will be handled with the swiftness, precision and care that you have become accustomed to as a Toyota owner," the letter reads.

Toyota dealers are going to extremes to take care of customers.

Bob Carter, Toyota's sales administration manager, sent a letter to dealers on Tuesday thanking them for their efforts and urging more.

Dealers are extending their hours, he wrote, opening additional repair stations and offering car washes. In return, Toyota is paying dealers as much as $75,000, depending on their sales volume, to cover additional expenses caused by the recalls.

"Bottom line - Toyota dealers 'Get It,'" Carter wrote. "Toyota dealers already know the first and most critical step of rebuilding the confidence and trust of Toyota owners is the interaction and service they receive in your dealership."

Ciresi said the manager of her local Toyota dealer arranged for a dinner meeting at the dealership with customers.

"He's going to have to have earplugs in his ears," she sad, "because we're going to tell him what to do."

CNNMoney.com's Poppy Harlow, Aaron Smith and Blake Ellis and CNN's Debra Krajnak contributed to this report. To top of page

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