Rival auto dealers try to make the best of Toyota's problems

Toyota dealers are circling the wagons as the automaker recalls millions of vehicles worldwide — but other dealers hope to capitalize on the damage to Toyota's reputation for reliability.

General Motors and Ford both announced discounts and special financing offers this week in hopes of knocking the Japanese automaker off its perch as the top-selling make in the U.S.

Toyota has suspended sales and production of some models and has recalled more than 2 million vehicles — expanding the recall Thursday to Europe and China — for potentially deadly gas-pedal problems that can cause engines to rev out of control.

Toyota and its gas-pedal supplier are racing to make and ship new parts for vehicles in its factories, in dealer showrooms and on the streets.

Also Thursday, lawmakers on the House Energy and Commerce Committee said they plan to hold a Feb. 25 hearing on the gas-pedal flaw. In a statement, Toyota pledged its "full cooperation."

All this sets the stage for a possible shift in the marketplace. It's too soon tell whether Ford and GM incentives will succeed in luring away Toyota buyers. But some local dealers say they hope so.

"We haven't seen that yet, but I think we will," said Bill Hedrick, owner of Hedrick's Chevrolet in Clovis, Calif. "There are people out there with (Toyotas) that aren't going to want to drive them, and they need a vehicle."

Hedrick said dealers of all makes have been counting on pent-up demand to fuel sales following two years of recession that kept many would-be car buyers on the sidelines.

"I have friends in the Toyota business, and this couldn't have hit them at a worse time," Hedrick said.

Representatives at Bingham Toyota, next-door to Hedrick's store, and Michael Toyota in Fresno declined Thursday to comment on how recalls and suspended sales of some of their most popular models are affecting business.

Customers were sparse at both Toyota stores Thursday — but nearby competitors' lots weren't exactly bustling, either.

"We don't want to gloat at someone else's misfortune," said Mark Rapin, vice president of Fresno's Freedom Ford truck store. "It's unfortunate, because this will cost the entire industry some sales for the next few months."

"But I think Ford and GM are doing the right thing" with incentives to Toyota owners, Rapin added. "I guarantee if the shoe were on the other foot, they'd be jumping all over us."

Rapin said the offers Ford announced Thursday aim not only at owners of Toyotas, but also Toyota's Lexus division as well as Honda and its high-end Acura brand.

"We're certainly hoping if they're in the market, they'll take a look at Ford," Rapin said. "It certainly can't hurt us."

Toyota's recall involves 2.3 million vehicles in the U.S. — and more in Europe and China — because the accelerator pedals can get stuck. Separately, Toyota recalled 1.1 million more vehicles this week because of floor mats that can bend and hold down the gas pedal.