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A Valentine for Toyota

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In the late 60's, I remember leaving a concert in West Hollywood with two friends. We were stopped near our parking lot by a young man who asked us to participate in a short survey about cars. We all were nuts about them, particularly foreign cars, with one of us owning a Renault Gordini, one a Citroen, and one a Saab Sonnet. Combined we had had flings with Rovers, Jaguars and Peugeots. Our relationships with these beautiful yet impractical cars were romantic but troubled.

There, on the lot in front of us, were three American cars: a Ford Mustang, a Mercury Cougar, and an Oldsmobile Cutlass. While these conjured up dashing, fast, and dangerous images, they did not highlight functionality -- and for good reason. We all had had our battles with our own share of Cutlasses, Chevys, and even a Plymouth. The fourth, one we had never seen before, was a small boxy vehicle with no style, without even a label.

We were given clipboards with questions for rating the cars' attributes and told to examine certain features, one by one. First, we were asked to look at the bumpers. I had never thought of bumpers before, but as we observed we saw that only the mystery car had a bumper that would actually protect the car from a crash.

Next we were asked to sit in the car. How easily could we open and close the driver's door? We found that the American car doors were heavy and the handles ill-placed compared to the unknown ugly one.

Then we were asked to see how clearly we could read the dashboard while sitting behind the wheel. I still remember that the Mustang, the best looking of the bunch, had a steering wheel that totally obscured the dash's information unless I ducked my head. Same story with the other American models. Only in the mystery car, could I simultaneously view the gauges for speed, mileage, and gas tank.

We were asked to turn on the radio while keeping our eyes on the windshield -- an impossible feat while sitting in the American cars; only possible for the refrigerator-shaped one.

But we were not asked to drive the cars as I had hoped -- just to compare their design. And when I did just that, I had an epiphany about these cars and their makers. American designers at the time designed from the outside in. Their cars looked great, but the operating details were made to fit, procrustean style, without a thought for the drivers' needs. The foreign make, on the other hand, had been designed from the inside out. That difference in the design intention made all the difference. The Japanese design made sense: from reading the instruments; from the feel and size of the steering wheel; the ability to turn on and tune the radio (car radio in LA was, and is, king) -- to the seat itself, which had plenty of headroom and appropriately-placed pedals -- all an ergonomic revelation. .

We each scored the unknown highest, and were then asked if we would consider buying such a car. We'd seriously consider it. The comparison, after all, was so astonishing that we would never forget it. What we had so highly rated was, of course, the first Toyota we had ever seen, let alone heard of.

After I grew impatient trying to find and pay mechanics to tune and repair unreliable cars, I was the first of our trio to switch from Europe to Japan. It took me time, however, because the outward appearance of the Japanese cars was hard to get over. Then, when the more stylish Maxima came out, I bought it immediately. I loved it. I could depend on it. It did what a car was supposed to do without fail.

My father, staunchly opposed to buying anything but American, bought a Buick Le Sabre at that same time, so we agreed to compare how the cars held up. His steering wheel came off in his hands not six months after he bought the Buick, crashing straight into a telephone pole and subsequently having to pay the city of Philadelphia for the damage. But nothing bad ever happened to my car. Nothing. I had it serviced at the dealers and kept on marveling that it ran perfectly. I sold it only when I moved to New York.

Then when I came back to LA after a stint giving speeches on women's leadership for Infinity at Nissan showrooms, I saw just how sleek Japanese style had become. Their advertising worked on me. I bought a silver Infinity J30, sheer perfection. I drove it for 16 years before I turned it in two years ago for a used Lexus ES350, rated by Consumer Reports, and my friends and dentist, as the best that Toyota ever made. They are right. The car is excellent -- luxurious, reliable, comfortable, albeit as gas-guzzling as my other cars.

Some media commentators say it's over for Toyota and predict that no future generation will ever trust the carmaker. I say, no. Give Toyota a chance to correct their flaws: fix their accelerators and their gas pedals, and get back to their long legacy of safety and quality. Certainly the recalled cars need immediate correction. But we don't want a divorce, just a reconciliation!

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