No Toyota apologies for Europe

04 April 2010 - 02:00 By DOMINIC O'CONNELL - ©The Sunday Times, London

They filed onto the floor of the atrium and spilled out of offices to line the balconies above.

The crowd was eager, good humoured and apprehensive, as if waiting to see if a rock star was as good live as on CD.

The main attraction walked quickly onto the stage. A slight, short figure, dark-haired, bespectacled, wearing the light-grey blouson used by production workers at Toyota car plants.

This was the man they had all come to see: Akio Toyoda, the carmaker's president, making the latest stop in a global tour to repair the damage done to the company's reputation by a series of product glitches.

Sticky throttles, defective floormats and wonky brake software have tumbled Toyota off its throne at the top of the automotive world. They are reportedly linked to more than 50 deaths in the US - a figure that Toyota calls "highly unreliable" - and have forced the recall of 11 million vehicles worldwide, a serious blow to a carmaker that became the world's largest on the strength of the quality of its manufacturing.

Toyoda had apologised in Japan, China and America. Last Tuesday, he was in Toyota's European head office, an anonymous building beside Brussels Airport, preaching to the converted. The crowd of 1000 consisted of Toyota workers and dealers. They cheered as he came on stage, applauded during his speech, and cheered when he walked off again.

There was no apology. Instead, Toyoda's speech was part mea culpa, part pithy pep talk. He might have thought a public apology in Europe was not necessary. The impact of the recalls has been much less than in the US.

Floormats here are different, and there have been (Toyota says) no incidents of them tangling up with throttle pedals and causing runaway acceleration. Sticky throttle pedals have been an issue, although Toyota says it has received only 26 reports from owners of the 1.7 million cars called in for repairs. On the faulty braking software, which affects only the latest Prius models, there have been no complaints from European customers (it says), but 53000 cars are being recalled.

Away from the crowds and back in a sober grey suit, Toyoda said he did not think it was the right time for an apology. "Apologies are for headlines. What is more important right now is to provide a full explanation to our customers."