Toyota dealerships field lots of calls

RICHMOND — Charlie Johnson, general manager of Toyota South in Richmond, has fielded a steady stream of calls to the dealership the past several days from Toyota owners concerned about possible gas pedal problems in their cars.

Not that any of the callers have said they experienced the problem, Johnson said.

"The main thing they want to know is what to expect: when will the parts arrive, how soon can they get their car in to be fixed," Johnson said.

In an unprecedented move, Toyota last week issued a global recall of nearly 4.6 million vehicles to fix a gas pedal that can stick when depressed. Some 2.3 million of those cars are in the United States and include some of Toyota's best-selling models, such as the Camry and Corolla.

As part of the recall effort, Toyota halted production and sales of the eight recalled models. The production stop included a line that produces the Camry and Avalon at the company's Georgetown plant, its largest in North America. The Scott County facility announced Tuesday production would resume Monday.

Toyota's sales halt appeared to have a significant effect on its January numbers, when the company's sales fell 16 percent. Most other automakers reported higher sales in January, usually a slow month.

"There is no doubt that the stop sale which was put in place last week impacted our sales," Bob Carter, Toyota's group vice president and general manager, told The Associated Press.

Carter said it's difficult to quantify the size of the sales drop due to the accelerator problem, but he said the January results were 23 percent below Toyota's internal targets, or about 20,000 sales.

The eight models for which the sales were suspended amounted to about 60 percent of Toyota dealers' inventory, he said.

Toyota South's Johnson expects a shipment to arrive Wednesday of parts that Toyota says will repair the faulty accelerator. Also in the shipment will be an electronic training manual on how to do the installation.

"The service manager will first review the manual," he said. Then all eight service technicians at the dealership will receive training before they do any work.

The repair involves installing a steel shim a couple of millimeters thick into the pedal assembly, behind the top of the gas pedal, to eliminate excess friction between two pieces of the accelerator mechanism.

In rare cases, Toyota says, that friction can cause the pedal to become stuck in the depressed position.

Repairs will take about 30 minutes and will start in a matter of days, the company said Tuesday.

Toyota owners must take their cars to a Toyota dealership to have the work done. "All the expenses will be covered, so that's considered under warranty," Johnson said.

Johnson said he was unsure of the magnitude of work that faces his service department. But technicians will keep flexible schedules, prepared to work longer hours if necessary.

Though the dealership has received a flood of calls, "nobody's been really aggressive or thrown a fit," Johnson said. "People mainly want their questions answered — that relieves a lot of anxiety — but they need answers.

Other Toyota dealerships in Central Kentucky — Toyota on Nicholasville, Green's Toyota in Lexington and Glenn Toyota in Frankfort — declined to comment. Suzanne Chapman, in the service department at Green's Toyota, said, "We're not really talking to the media."

Toyota South's Johnson said he sees taking questions as an opportunity "to show how well we want to take care of the problem and take care of our customers."

"We believe in Toyota," he said. "We believe in our staff, and we are up to the challenge."

Meanwhile, Toyota's plant in Georgetown announced it will restart its halted assembly line Monday. The plant had idled the assembly line that produces the Camry and Avalon, which were among the eight models for which Toyota halted sales and stopped production.

The company continued to run its second line, which produces the Camry, the Camry Hybrid and the crossover Venza, because it used gas pedals provided by a different supplier.

The 2,500 or so affected employees were given the option of coming in for training exercises and discussing ways they can improve their processes or taking paid vacation days or unpaid time off.

Spokesman Rick Hesterberg said 70 percent of the affected workers were on site Monday for training.

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