Toyota Chief Bows Before the Chinese

Akio Toyoda bowed twice during his apology to car owners in Beijing Monday, two more times than he bowed during his just completed trip to the U.S. China is now the world's largest car market, and Toyota's top executive needs the good will of Chinese consumers if he hopes to catch up with the booming sales of other foreign car makers.

"All these problems make Chinese consumers very unhappy and we are really sorry," Toyoda told 300 Chinese reporters gathered in a Beijing hotel. "We love China, so we will try our best to produce quality cars for the Chinese people."

Toyoda came to Beijing directly from Washington, where he had testified before the House Oversight Committee. While Committee chair Rep. Ed Towns, D.-N.Y., said Friday that Toyota had withheld crucial information, Toyoda had a more positive spin on his experience before Congress.

He told the Chinese press that he was grateful for the chance to address Congress, explain his position and apologize to American consumers. "I told the hearing about our future measures," he said, "and I am not sure if American consumers will accept what I said, but I talked to many consumers who told me they would still buy Toyota vehicles."

Toyoda, who before taking the helm of the company in 2009 worked in overseas sales and was the first president of Toyota China, said it was important for him to extend his apology in person both to Chinese consumers via local media and to government officials with whom he met today.

The Chinese market is still small for Toyota, with sales of 700,000 in 2009 compared to 1.5 million in the U.S. But being a player here is seen as important to maintaining a strong global position, and Toyota's image problems come at a time when other foreign car manufacturers are increasing sales by as 87 percent a year in China. Sales for Toyota rose a relatively anemic 20 percent last year.

Toyoda said that the company will not change its sales target of 800,000 for 2010. "We hope the speed of the recall measures will restore the confidence of the Chinese consumer...and that the Chinese people will believe in us," he said.

Runaway Toyotas

Toyota was forced to recall over 75,000 RAV4's and numerous other models in China in the past year, a number that pales in comparison to the millions recalled in the U.S. The reasons the recalls were smaller in China is that Chinese Toyotas do not use the floor mats or accelerator pedals implicated in the two biggest U.S. Toyota recalls.

When asked by a reporter whether or not Toyota cars made in Japan were better quality than those for the international market, Toyoda put to use his knowledge of Chinese cuisine. "To some extent cars are products that are varied, made suitable for different consumers. Like food, mapu tofu (a dish popular in China), flavors can be different depending on where it is made, but quality-wise our products are all the same."

A handful of angry Chinese consumers gathered outside a Beijing hotel as Toyota President Akio Toyoda addressed 300 Chinese reporters in Beijing.

Since his U.S. Congressional testimony last week, Toyoda has undoubtedly been fine-tuning his message. His damage control mission is only getting started and Toyoda is clearly hoping his explanation and apology will be better received here than it was in the U.S.

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