Cover Story: Toyota recall fallout

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - The federal government now is investigating steering problems with the Toyota Corolla, one of the models that wasn't part of the recall.  It has hit drivers and dealers hard.

Last year, Toyota was the most popular new car brand in the Charlotte area--by a long shot.  Here in the Carolinas, Scott Clark is the name most synonymous with Toyota.  In our Cover Story, a candid and no-holds barred conversation with the car-dealer.

His is the second biggest Toyota dealership in the southeast for a time last year Scott Clark Toyota was the 8th largest in the country, so Scott Clark knows the brand.

And while Toyota, the Japanese company has taken hits for not being more forth coming, we have a local perspective.

"How you doing?"

He moves about the showroom like a showman.  Talking to customers in for the recall repair, asking about the lunch on the house.

"They say there's no free lunches.. can you believe that?"

For a man who comes across as warm, it's been the brand he sells that's seen a lot of heat.

"It did kinda catch us off guard," says Scott Clark.  "We've never had a situation to be quite honest with you with Toyota.. a recall of this magnitude."

The recall includes 7.86 million Toyotas worldwide since last fall, mostly in the United States.  The recalls focusing on unintended acceleration and braking complaints.

"Have you heard any negative? I have not. Serious? I am totally serious."

Scott Clark told us they've been getting in cars on the recall for two weeks, averaging about 200 repairs a day.  1,500 so far he says.  They have no idea how many to expect, probably thousands.  So far, there have been none that have been defective.

"We have encountered no problems at all in any recall. We don't even have an instance where it's happened in Charlotte."

But the recall is the focus of at least three Congressional inquiries.  And now the government is looking into driver complaints about steering problems with the Corolla, the most popular selling car in the world.

"I don't think Congress should be investigating any differently than they would any other recall.  I doubt very serious if anything will come out except that the problem's solved."

"Thank you for your patience and understanding."  He's devoted some of his considerable advertising dollars addressing the problem the manufacturer has had.

Dealership sales since the recall have slowed, but Clark says that could be due more to the weather and the economy than anything.

Before the negative publicity-- Toyota had the biggest market share in Charlotte.  Nearly one out of every five new cars sold in Mecklenburg county.  More than twice the number of Fords and Chevys sold here.

Whether those numbers will stand up remains to be seen.  In typical car salesman fashion-- he's upbeat.

He says, "The image situation is a blip only because of the feedback we're getting from our customers. 30 days, 90 days, maybe even six months it's going to hurt a little bit but people know and respect Toyota. They will be back."

As for what's been most disappointing Scott Clark says seeing Toyota's competition the manufacturers capitalizing on the situation offering rebates to get people to trade in their Toyotas.

He says Ford and GM have each had recalls and the Japanese automaker he says has never gone after them before.

A lot's been made about the company not addressing the recall fast enough.. what does he say about that?

His take is that Toyota wanted to make sure they had the problem fixed first says you can't come out and tell people we have a problem but we don't know how to fix it.