Owners look for answers in Toyota recall

Confusion abounded Friday as frustrated Toyota owners scrambled to figure out what to do with their recalled vehicles, and dealers rushed to assess the damage from the automaker’s decision to temporarily halt sales of vehicles to address sudden acceleration problems.

Toyota owners jammed the automaker’s phone lines while others drove to dealerships seeking refunds for newly purchased cars or immediate fixes for older models.

“We’ve gotten everything from ‘I can never drive this thing again’ to ‘How fast can I get the fix and can I pay you to get to the top of the line?’ ” said Marc Cannon, senior vice president of AutoNation Inc., which has seven Toyota dealerships in California.

“We had somebody park the car, leave the keys and say, ‘When you can fix it, call me. I’ll come pick it up,’ ” Cannon said.

The anxiety among drivers was apparent three days after Toyota Motor Corp. took the unprecedented step of halting sales and production of eight models -- including its best-selling Camry and Corolla lines -- which it has blamed on gas pedals that can stick.

Such problems have been blamed in at least 19 deaths and numerous injuries over the last decade, prompting Toyota to launch two recalls in the U.S.

The reverberations continued Friday as Toyota announced that a European recall could include up to 1.8 million cars, pushing the global total to 9 million, or nearly as many vehicles as were sold in the U.S. last year.

In his first public comments on the matter, Toyota’s president apologized Friday to Toyota owners.

“We’re extremely sorry to have made customers uneasy,” Akio Toyoda told a Japanese television station at an economic forum in Davos, Switzerland. “We plan to establish the facts and give an explanation that will restore confidence as soon as possible.”

It was unclear Friday how and when Toyota might fix the sudden acceleration problem.

In an e-mail to dealers Thursday, Bob Carter, group vice president and general manager of Toyota’s U.S. sales arm, said the carmaker had “identified the cause of the problem” and “presented a remedy” to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Based on that assurance, several dealers said they’ve been telling customers that repairs could begin as early as next week.

The carmaker said Friday that “no final decisions have been made” about whether to attempt to fix existing pedals or replace them with new ones.

Toyota plans early next week “to clarify what we’re doing and when,” spokesman Brian Lyons said. “We’re working out the details, making sure that our t’s are crossed and the i’s dotted.”

Beyond denting the automaker’s carefully crafted image as a maker of dependable vehicles, the mechanical woes are inconveniencing millions of car owners and posing a serious financial threat to Toyota dealers.

Toyota owners said they were dismayed by the potential safety issue, with many expressing frustration at what they see as a lack of information from the company about the nature of the problems and the timetable for remedying them.

Erika Nadaud, 41, a psychologist and homemaker in Knoxville, Tenn., bought a $57,000 Toyota Sequoia with her husband an hour before Toyota announced its most recent recall last week.

She returned to the dealership the next day for answers and was assured by a salesperson that “it was no big deal,” Nadaud said. She became extremely concerned, she said, after the sales suspension.

“At this point we’re feeling pretty frustrated,” she said. “I don’t want to make a mountain out of a molehill, but it sounds like the problem is larger than we had initially been led to believe.”

The financial effect of the sales halt is rippling through Southern California dealerships, which already were grappling with soft sales amid a troubled economy and a high unemployment rate.

Nationwide, Toyota’s 1,234 dealers stand to lose a collective $2.5 billion in revenue each month that sales are suspended, according to an estimate from the National Automobile Dealers Assn.

Each dealership would lose $1.75 million to $2 million, according to the group. There are 134 Toyota dealers in California.

The suspended models represent 56% of all new Toyota and Lexus vehicles that the automaker sold in the U.S. last year.

“There was an awful lot of financial stress on dealers before this happened, and this makes an already bad situation much, much worse,” said David Hyatt, a NADA spokesman.

Also on Friday, Consumer Reports magazine temporarily suspended its “recommended” status for the eight Toyota models recalled in the U.S. and advised buyers looking for used cars to avoid purchasing the affected vehicles for now.

“We continue to feel these are fundamentally good cars,” said David Champion, director of the magazine’s Auto Test Center. “We took this step simply because we did not feel comfortable continuing to recommend them until the accelerator problem is fixed.”

Toyota Pasadena, a mid-size dealership, is getting about 125 calls a day from customers, with an additional 30 to 50 people driving in looking for answers, said owner John Symes.

He’s designated two employees to handle questions and, like many other dealerships, is giving free car inspections for owners who are particularly troubled, Symes said.

The true test of the effect on dealers will begin today because Saturday is traditionally the busiest day of the week for car shopping.