Sean O'Grady: This time the jokes are on Toyota

Reliability is the main selling point – perhaps the only one – of its colossally dull cars

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Jokes, usually in questionable taste, are what really do for car companies. Some are surprisingly durable. The lines that FIAT stands for "Fix It Again, Tony" or that Lotus means "Lots Of Trouble, Usually Serious" can be carbon-dated to the 1970s.

As it happens, the expected global wave of Toyota gags doesn't seem to have materialised, yet, though a "Toyotathon of Death" has featured on America's Daily Show with John Stewart, where Stewart also excitedly screams at Detroit: "Hey boys, we're back in the game – thanks to our rival making death traps".

My own attempt at humour is based on a Toyota advertising slogan of a few years ago: "The car in front is no longer a Toyota – even if it doesn't want to be".

So there you go. Embarrassing, but not as bad as it might be. The reputational damage Toyota has suffered ought, for example, to be nothing like the scale of shame that Skoda and its drivers (like me, I have to confess) endured for decades.

The Skoda story – and accompanying jokes – must make Toyota's marketeers wince. A decade and a half ago the old Communist outfit churned out shoddy, and, on a wet corner, dangerously handling cars, probably far more life-threatening than anything Toyota may have perpetrated.

Then Skoda was bought by Volkswagen and was transformed into a maker of cheap, reliable and durable Polo, Golf and Passat clones, and the boss of VW sister brand Audi wondered aloud why anyone would bother buying one of his cars when you could get something remarkably similar for half the price.

And yet the cruel Skoda jibes echo down the years, long after the cars became unrecognisably better – proof that the reputation of a motor company that can be lost in days takes many, many years to rebuild. There are still many consumers in Britain who would agree that the main difference between a Skoda and venereal disease is that venereal disease is easier to get rid off.

Just like a reputation for poor quality, in fact, which hits car companies harder than most, as Skoda knows. It took many years for the jokes about British Leyland and then Rover to finish off our indigenous industry, but they got there in the end, even when the cars were basically perfectly good Hondas. (Two Ronnies sample, circa 1976: "It has been announced that British Leyland workers will no longer clock in every morning — they'll sign the visitors' book instead").

Fortunately, there are many textbook examples of what to do and what not to do. Though now largely forgotten, in the 1980s both Volvo and Audi had problems with "unintended acceleration" in their cars. Audi spent a lot of time and money denying the problem existed – the classic blunder – only to eventually own up and pay up. In Audi's case, their mismanagement of a technical issue virtually banished them from the American market, though they are back now.

Toyota's PR men, on the other hand, can be seen on telly all over the world brandishing bits of metal – the miraculous "fix" that can make Toyota owners relax again. Like the marketing experts who told Perrier just to pour the lot down the drain and come clean when someone found traces of benzene in their mineral water in 1990, the Toyota managers appear to recognise that you need to act quickly, dramatically and ruthlessly to limit the damage. Hence all that waving of accelerator pedals and apologies.

On the other hand, Toyota's brand is not strong enough to be able to simply drive through these problems. Toyota must envy Mercedes-Benz, for example, left virtually unscathed by the scandal of their E-Class cars self-combusting. Land-Rover seems to have plenty of people who think it the best 4x4xfar, even though it usually languishes around the bottom of the reliability and customer satisfaction surveys. Sony still sell lap tops, even though they too showed a distressing tendency to catch fire. And so on.

The truth seems to be that sometime in the last decade Toyota became classically over extended and lost its way in its quest to overtake GM and become the world's biggest car maker. It did become number one last year – but at the cost of an inevitable loss of quality as it expanded production outside its Japanese homeland, and lost its previously assured grip on quality and reliability as factories proliferated from Thailand to Derbyshire.

And that reliability, I'm afraid, is the main selling point – possibly the only selling point – for Toyota's range of colossally dull motor cars. Can you say what an Auris looks like? Even Akio Toyoda, current boss and grandson of the founder, has admitted that his cars need to be more exciting, publicly praising the VW Scirocco. Not the Toyota Way we knew.

Apart from a couple of wacky Lexus models, only the "green" Prius could be called interesting. Even with that little marvel there is the nagging concern that the whole hybrid thing, in which Toyota has sunk vast amounts of capital, could be a massive technological dead end, as conventional small diesel engines and pure electric cars can offer better environmental performance.

At least in an MG or Alfa Romeo you'll have had some fun before you wait for the AA to arrive; in a Toyota there is no compensating advantage because there is no other reason for buying the car than the claim that it will never let you down. The other uncomfortable fact is that Toyota's competitors – even the likes of Ford and GM – have almost caught up on reliability.

The chances are that Toyota will get through its current travails and not become the new Skoda. The quality should be recoverable, and impressively so. Toyota's silent and cosseting Lexus limo has a plausible claim to be the best car in the world – and I doubt it will go wrong.

However, the company's reputation was already stalling before this current crisis – last year it posted its first loss since 1950 – and it will probably never be what it once was. The outspoken Mr Toyoda warned some months ago that "we are grasping for salvation." That's no joke.

s.o'grady@independent.co.uk

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