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Toyota dealers trying to calm, keep customers

Toyota's dealers, who have started to repair defective gas pedals in millions of  vehicles, are extending hours, making house calls and offering other services for customers.
Image: Dean Baker
Service technician Dean Baker fixes the accelerator on a recalled vehicle at Andy Mohr Toyota in Avon, Ind., on Wednesday. Michael Conroy / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Toyota's dealers, who have started to repair defective gas pedals in millions of U.S. vehicles, are extending hours, making house calls and offering other services as they try to repair the damage to Toyota's reputation.

Toyota Motor Corp. recalled eight vehicles Jan. 21 and stopped selling those vehicles five days later because their accelerator pedals could stick in a depressed position. Toyota is sending dealers a piece of steel about the size of a postage stamp that can be inserted into the accelerator mechanism and eliminate the friction that causes the problem.

Jim White Toyota, a dealership in Toledo, Ohio, received about 350 steel pieces, or shims, and began repairs Wednesday morning. By mid-afternoon, about 25 cars were fixed, said Terry Treter, service manager.

Repairs were going smoothly and a little faster than the half-hour Toyota estimated, he said. Technicians do a test drive as part of the repair.

The dealership hired three people to handle phone calls and repair scheduling and will add more people if needed, Treter said. He also said the dealership will stay open as late as necessary.

"I'll stay until midnight," Treter said. "Whatever they want. I won't turn anyone away."

Treter said customers have been calm despite a warning early Wednesday from U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who said owners of recalled Toyotas should stop driving them. LaHood later said he misspoke and told owners to get their cars repaired.

At Lee Toyota Topsham in Topsham, Maine, service manager Dan Daigle expected to begin repairs Thursday morning. He has already received around 300 calls from customers and expects to keep technicians working until at least 10 p.m. each night.

"If we need to add people to handle the extra volume, then that's what we'll do," he said.

Earl Stewart, who owns a dealership in North Palm Beach, Fla., is sending a repair van to the homes of customers for the first time, since some are too nervous to drive their vehicles to the dealership.

Toyota is giving U.S. dealers payments of up to $75,000 to help them offer extra measures like house calls.

"Within the next several days, you will receive a check from us (no strings attached) with a simple request — 'do the right thing on behalf of Toyota customers'," Toyota group vice president Bob Carter said Tuesday in the letter to dealers obtained by The Associated Press.

Carter thanked dealers for their extraordinary measures. He also suggested other steps, like additional hires to help with recall repairs, dedicated recall service lanes and complimentary oil changes.

"Toyota dealers already know the first and most critical step of rebuilding the confidence and trust of Toyota owners is the interaction and service they receive in your dealership," Carter said.

Toyota is sending checks this week based on the number of cars each dealer sold in 2009. Dealers who sold fewer than 500 cars will get $7,500. Dealers who sold more than 4,000 will get $75,000.

Toyota has around 1,200 U.S. dealers.

Besides the 2.3 million U.S. vehicles recalled because of the gas pedal problem, Toyota recalled 5 million vehicles to fix floor mats that could inadvertently trap the accelerator pedals.

Carter said Toyota is considering other marketing efforts to win back customers' confidence, but he didn't elaborate. Toyota may have to offer rebates and low-interest financing to lure back customers, which could force other automakers to raise their incentives.

Toyota's January sales fell 16 percent, and the company estimated it lost 20,000 sales due to the recall and sales stoppage.