Toyota Leads All Automakers in U.S. Recalls

Experts say the sudden acceleration troubles of 2009 and 2010 still haunt the Japanese automaker.

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If it seems like Toyota performs a lot of recalls, that’s because it’s true. The car company that on Wednesday announced it was recalling 1.9 million Prius vehicles worldwide was the U.S. leader in recalls last year. The company recalled 5.3 million vehicles in 2013, more than No. 2 Chrysler, with 4.7 million, and nearly twice as many as No. 3 Honda, with 2.8 million.

All told, Toyota accounted for about one in four of the nearly 22 million recalls in 2013.

Graph showing recalls by auto manufacturer.
Source: Automotive News

True, Toyota is one of the leading companies in U.S. auto sales, so it will naturally have a large number of recalls. However, its share of recalls does appear large in comparison to its market share -- compare the fact that it accounted for one in four recalls last year to the fact that it sold one of every seven cars in the U.S., according to figures compiled by the International Business Times (recalls, of course, can affect cars already on the road, not just recent sales).

However, recalls are one area where numbers can be deceptive. Performing many recalls doesn’t necessarily mean a company’s cars are unsafe. Rather, it can mean a company is risk-averse, says one expert.

[READ: Toyota to Recall 1.9 Million Prius Cars Due to Software Problem]

“With all the lawsuits, you're talking billions and billions of dollars in lawsuits, they’ve gotten a bit gun-shy,” says Paul Argenti, an expert in corporate communications at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth University, pointing out that in the last two years, Toyota has recalled more than 10 million vehicles. He believes the company has grown cautious since its 2009 and 2010 recall of millions of vehicles due to unintended acceleration.

Those recalls have already cost Toyota billions of dollars. But the company is also trying to make a point to customers, says Jessica Caldwell, senior analyst at automotive information provider Edmunds.

“I think they are trying to win consumers' trust because that's really been kind of an issue,” she says. “Every recall since then can be tied back to that time [of the 2009-2010 recalls]."

She says these recalls could go either way toward gaining customers’ favor; while some might be irked at having to get repairs to their vehicles, others might see it as the company being proactive and watching out for their safety.

For his part, Argenti thinks Toyota may be better off focusing on improving vehicle quality, even if that means raising prices.

“You’ve got to change the way you're doing your manufacturing and where you're buying your supplies from, and maybe your vehicles end up being more expensive. That's a strategic choice. It's not a communication problem," Argenti says. As The New York Times noted in a Wednesday article, the company has continued to face quality issues, including malfunctioning heated seats that prompted the company to stop selling several models last month.

[FLASHBACK: Toyota, Honda Recall Millions of Car Airbags]


Toyota says it is already working on improving quality and that customers are noticing.

"Toyota places a high priority on safety and quality, and we will promote quality-improvement and error-prevention measures while conducting strict tests," says a Toyota spokesperson in an email to U.S. News. "We’ve taken a number of steps to better serve our customers. We believe they’re starting to take notice as evidenced by high customer loyalty and high satisfaction with their recall experience."

But it’s not just Toyota that has ramped up its recall efforts. The car industry has boosted its number of recalls in recent years. The 22 million vehicles recalled in 2013 was 34 percent higher than the 2012 figure and was also the highest number of recalls since 2004. In addition, a vast majority of those, 15 million, were originated by automakers, as opposed to a government-initiated investigation.

“Other automakers have kind of followed suit because they don’t really want to go through the same issues that Toyota had,” says Caldwell.