THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Now Toyota Doesn't Get It

A couple of years ago, I had a lot of problems with my teeth. Now, if you sit for any length of time in a dentist's office--and I was in more than a few of them--you get to reading the magazines. Given that I wasn't into Jack and Jill or Modern Homemaking, I went through a lot of auto titles.

Besides finding out a bit about cars, I thought the most interesting thing about the content was its strong sense of nostalgia. Not just in the editorials, but a great many of the articles talked endlessly about how they wished it was the seventies--pre catalytic converter days--and not the modern era. The past was where they wanted to dwell. Planning for the future was minimal, and the present seemed dull by comparison with the golden era. This is quite different, by the way, from the Asian automakers, who talk endlessly about what new generations will do to the automobile, what they hope to achieve in the future.

Above all, however, the biggest issue the mags--and American automakers in general--seemed to miss was a gigantic shift in the priorities of our car buyers. In years past, what sold autos was style and accessories. The hot look of the Mustang, or chrome wheelcovers. This is still what the magazines--and the carmakers--think in terms of.

For the last twenty years, however, in real life, the most important thing buyers look for has been reliability. People want cars that will run, for years. If you do your part, with monthly maintenance, you expect to not have to be hauled into the shop behind a tow truck.

The reason for this massive shift is pretty simple to figure out; it is the demographics of a vastly changed American economy. When I was a kid, millions of Americans still worked in factories, using metal and tools. As a result, it was second nature for them to come home from work, and tinker with their own car. These machines ran well, not necessarily because dependability was built in, but because they were constantly tuned up, constantly finessed by loving, if greasy, hands. I remember an era where by the time they were teenagers, most boys knew how to change the oil.

All that has changed. Service jobs now dominate the workforce. People work on laptops, not with screwdrivers. I have a doctorate, yet I wouldn't know how to start draining my car's engine oil. And even if you wanted to try, autos are increasingly managed by electronic controls now, rather than by mechanical connections you could figure out at home. You can't even diagnose what's wrong with a car anymore, without a computer and the specialized software dealers use.

Toyota was the first to figure this out, followed by Honda. The Corolla was the original "bulletproof" car. Its reputation was based, not on looks--which were mundane at best--but on the fact that it ran forever. I knew a young couple, for example, back in the eighties, who were in an accident with one of these cars. Sure, the shop fixed it, with major work done, but everyone knew that after surgery like that, a vehicle never ran the same again.

Except for a Toyota. It spun like it just came from the factory. And the company capitalized on this quality, too, running ads highlighting the fact that their cars and trucks worked just fine after several hundred thousand miles.

Detroit, meanwhile, ignored this issue, focusing instead on cupholders. An acquaintance of mine who teaches in the law school drove an Oldsmobile for a dozen years, and loved it. When it finally wore out, he upgraded a few years ago to a Cadillac.

Which he hates. He claims it's garbage, with poor fit and finish. The doors didn't match the frame, and plenty of other details are off as well. He doesn't expect to get more than a few years from the vehicle, then plans to get a Lexus. Even today, as Detroit plans for a new generation of electric cars, a vast new ad campaign by GM finally focuses on fuel economy and other attributes, but ignores reliability, where it is presumed they can't compete.

And now its Toyota's turn to be stupid. The excuse that floormats made their cars suddenly and uncontrollably accelerate always seemed rather thin to me. Instead, the Los Angeles Times has been running a revealing series of articles on how computer failures are causing the problems, and that Toyota spent years avoiding recalls and covering up these issues. The bloom is off the rose for this brand, their image of invulnerability dashed. Maybe they should name their next car the Toyota Pinto.

I don't know why the big automakers don't get the reality of who their customers are now. They spend billions on marketing, and still can't figure it out. Maybe the water in their executive suites is spiked with denial juice.