General Motors (GM) recently recalled about 1.6m vehicles due to faulty ignition switches, and another 1.75m vehicles for changes to instrument panels, brake boosters and air-bag wiring harnesses, casting a cloud over the company.
GM is hardly alone in grabbing headlines for all the wrong reasons. On 19 March, Toyota was fined $1.2bn by the US Department of Justice for failing to recall models whose faulty parts were connected to cases of unintended acceleration.
Such actions affect millions of drivers around the world, posing at minimum an inconvenience and at worst a potentially lethal hazard. But do they impact shoppers’ perceptions of these brands? BBC Autos trawled Quora.com, the online question and answer forum, to gauge public opinion on how automotive recalls may or may not alter buyer behaviour.
Accountability starts at the top
One question that arose on Quora, echoing widely held sentiments, was whether or not Japanese carmakers built more reliable products than their US or European counterparts.
Jason Lancaster, an editor of consumer car websites, said a perception of reliability is not about pitting Japan v America, but rather has "everything to do with different styles of corporate management". He posits that Japanese carmakers have more stable senior management teams, which might feed an impression of stability that extends to the company’s cars. He notes, however, that US automakers are "dramatically better" at building cars than they were 30 years ago.
Quora user Faheem Gill made the same case for management’s influence over brand perception. "Both Honda and Toyota develop leaders out of their engineering ranks," he said, which bolsters the impression that “car people” are minding the shop. (GM, which historically has been lead by financial officers, played against type in making Mary Barra, an engineer, chief executive in 2013.)
Regardless of whether a company’s senior management came from the product or finance side of the business, neither is a safeguard against recalls. This month Honda, which promotes heavily from its engineering corps, recalled nearly 900,000 of its Odyssey minivans because of a fuel restrainer problem, which could potentially cause fires. And Toyota, which recalled 10m cars for that acceleration issue, is led by Akio Toyoda, who while not an engineer is an enthusiastic driver who has led the carmaker’s rediscovery of its high-performance heritage.
A knock-on effect?
One Quora thread asked whether recalls altered how customers viewed a car company's reliability. Kevin Douglas Berg responded that save for extreme cases like the 1970s Ford Pinto – a car notorious for catching fire in rear-impact collisions – recalls do not cast “lasting ‘black marks’” on an automaker.
Berg wrote that despite the negative publicity around sticky accelerator pedals, he would still buy a Toyota Prius if he had his heart set on it. "No one individual nameplate is immune to have a model recalled at one time or another," he wrote. Failure, in other words, is a great leveller.
Lancaster argued in a separate thread that recalls pass quickly from consumers' minds. "They seem to be the most important news item in a particular company's history when they happen, but after a short period of time they're all but forgotten."
Judging by Toyota’s sales performance, Lancaster may have a point. The company has nearly recovered its pre-scandal sales levels, en route to retaining its title in 2013 of world’s largest automaker by sales volume. The company it dethroned in 2012? GM.