It’s impossible not to eavesdrop on the other parents’ conversations when I pick up my kindergartener from school. It’s a wholly unscientific but usually accurate way to find out what’s top-of-mind with people here in the Midwest — unemployment, strep throat, American Idol, and the auto industry. Today’s conversation centered around the woes at Toyota, including the very recent recall of their hybrid models for a software glitch-related braking issue. In spite of the fact that I live in a suburb just north of Detroit, a stone’s throw from a Ford plant, a Chrysler plant, and the GM Design Center, the parking lot at my daughter’s school is loaded with Toyotas. There are dozens of them, from late-model Corollas and Siennas to sleek, shiny Lexuses and a smattering of peppy little Priuses. As if this wasn’t shocking enough, not one of the parents had a bad thing to say about Toyota. Literally, not one. Every last Toyota-driving parent, across all demographic groups, seemed almost blasé about the recall, a far cry from the industry pundits who have been smugly predicting Toyota’s doom for the past few weeks. After a few minutes, the conversation turned to LOST, and I tuned out. I wondered how widespread this unswerving devotion to Toyota might be.
As it turns out, it’s widespread indeed.
I quickly polled random Prius owners with one simple question: after today’s recall, would you still consider the purchase of another Prius?
“Absolutely,” says Peter Pappas, 60, of Rochester, New York. He drives a 2007 Prius, and has never experienced any issues with it. “It’s a hypothetical danger,” he says, and points out that most other automotive brands have had their share of problems. “I love the way my Prius integrates into my life — it recognizes me when I approach, answers my phone, plays my iPod… it’s a great car.” Pappas predicts that once the hype over the recalls dies down, people will continue to buy Toyotas.
300 miles away, in Rochester, Michigan, Tom Ford, 56, echoes Pappas’ sentiments. Ford drives a 2004 Prius, racking up 125,000 miles in the past six years. He’s experienced minor issues, but plans to drive his Prius as long as he can, partially out of sheer curiosity. “I want to see how long I can drive it,” Ford says. When I asked whether or not he would consider buying another Prius, he said he would. “Since I live in Detroit, I’d consider an American car, too, though, like a Ford,” he added.
Even drivers who have experienced issues aren’t fazed by them enough to rule out another purchase. David Maxwell of Boston had a braking issue with his 2007 Prius after a snowstorm, but though he says he “still has doubts” and feels the software in the Prius might be “too complicated,” he would still consider another Prius, and has in fact already started shopping for one. What’s holding up his purchase decision? No, it’s not the recall issues — he’s waiting for one with the solar roof panel.
While waiting for a call back from my contact at Toyota, I read through some of the feedback on the official Toyota Prius page on Facebook. There, the reaction was more impassioned, and much more diverse. Chong Chen Tong posted “I know my next car will be Toyota Prius,” but further down the page Steve Runyon added his two cents, “Great cars? Just what kind of problems does a car have to have to no longer be great?” Again, not very scientific, but it seemed that most of the feedback was positive, praising Toyota for their reaction to the issues, and expressing their faith in the quality of the cars they still have every intention of buying.
Curt McAllister, Product News Manager at Toyota, calls these consumers “devout.” He says that Prius owners are passionate about their vehicles, and from the beginning, they’ve wanted to know everything about their beloved cars, “every nuance and intricacy.” McAllister adds that perhaps the reason Prius owners are still so stalwartly loyal is because this recall isn’t about hard parts, it’s a software issue. He’s confident, but not smug, when he tells me that he’s certain that though the loyalty of Prius owners has been tested, Toyota will win back their affection.
Honestly, it doesn’t seem, at least to me based my own very unscientific research, that they’ve ever really lost it.