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Toyota Is Embarrassed, but Can It Win Back Customers

Monday, 1 Feb 2010 | 9:49 AM ET

The statement was straightforward with an appropriate amount of contrition.

Toyota headquarters
Getty Images
Toyota headquarters

When I talked with Jim Lentz, the head of Toyota USA he was direct in admitting his company is embarrassed by the on-going controversy over sticking gas pedals.

"Are we embarrassed by this? Of course we are. Are we sorry that this happened to our customers, to cause them this concern? Of course we are," said Lentz. He added, "But I think how well we take care of customers in the dealership, how quickly we can get this done, I think, will determine how much loss of confidence our customers have in us."

Toyota USA President on Gas Pedal Fix
Toyota announced a fix for about 2.4 million of its 8 most popular models involved in a safety recall and sales and production suspension. Jim Lentz, president of Toyota U.S.A., discusses the fix with CNBC's Phil LeBeau.

There's little else Lentz could say.

After recalling 2.3 million models in the U.S. and suspending sales of eight popular models, Toyota is boxed into a corner.

It's once sterling reputation for quality and safety has been tarnished.

The stories of scared Toyota owners explaining how their car suddenly sped up are everywhere.

Lentz said, "We are very confident that the fix in place is going to stop what's going on. In terms of stopping our production in our plants, as you can imagine that was a very difficult decision to do, but it was based around trying to put all of our resources of getting parts available for our customers, to get to customers that are down. All of this right now is very important as we take care of our existing owner base."

But will customers stick with Toyota?

Many will, largely because they have not experienced any problems with their car or truck. On the other hand there are others who have lost confidence in Toyota. They are scared by the anecdotal reports around the country of accidents linked to unintended acceleration in a Toyota. They are also wondering if Toyota has truly found the problem with its cars and trucks speeding up. After all, Toyota recalled more than 3 million models in October and blamed the problem on floor mats trapping gas pedals. Then in December and January, the company acknowledged its gas pedals might have problem "sticking" while in drive.

Winning back those customers or potential customers won't be easy.

For years, Americans bought Toyota models because they came with peace of mind. Most people didn't but a Toyota for its styling. The cars and trucks have never been considered sexy or exciting, but what they lacked in pizzazz they made up in safety and reliability. Now many people will wonder about Toyota.

Lentz knows what's at stake.

He said, "The important thing right now, to build trust back in our customers. They understand we know what the problem is. We have a fix in place, and we're going to get these cars fixed as rapidly as possible."

Toyota's biggest test since coming to America is just beginning.

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  • Phil LeBeau is a CNBC auto and airline industry reporter based in the Chicago bureau and editor of the Behind the Wheel section on CNBC.com.

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