CNNMoney.com has a piece up wondering how Toyota's latest PR woes will affect the rest of Japan's automakers. Me, I've never really understood how non auto enthusiasts figure out their strange perceptions of which automakers are "reliable" and which aren't.
Then again, "reliable" is another one of those vague words, like "peppy", that get used a lot and leave me puzzled. Do they mean "reliable" as in "will start and run forever with minimal maintenance" or do they mean "reliable" as in "I followed the manufacturer's service schedule religiously and the cruise still works after three years"?
There's different kinds of reliable. When I was dirt poor and needed a "bridge" car to last me until I could get something better, I bought an '84 Pontiac Trans Am. I did not buy it necessarily because it was a Trans Am, but because it was the newest car I found on short notice with a carburetted Chevy small-block V-8 and a GM Turbo Hydramatic transmission; a combination that will run like crap longer than most cars will run at all*, can be repaired by anybody, and every junkyard in America is full to the brim with spare parts. Plus, you know... hey, Trans Am? Anyway, it was reliable in the 'start up and run' sense, but it was also a mid-'80s GM car, which meant that somewhere around 75k or so miles, bits begin to fall off and subsystems start checking out, but you don't really need cruise control, AM/FM cassette, the dome light, or various small interior trim bits to get to and from work.
Same thing with applying "reliability" as a constant across an entire brand. BMW's E36 platform is the automotive equivalent of the cockroach; they're still everywhere on the roads and the newest one you see is twelve years old; they'll often go a quarter million miles without using anything but gas, tires, and oil. Conversely, a 750iL won't make it across a parking lot without breaking down. Most any little Japanese sedan from the '70s was reliable as all getout; they'd run 'til the body rusted off... if it had a manual transmission. Meanwhile, Japanese slushboxes of the time were purely awful; fragile, fussy little things.
So how will this latest Toyota thing affect the perceptions of the general consumer? I haven't a clue; you'll have to go ask a general consumer.
* To be technical, the "LG9 5.0L V8 engine/ THM 700R4 4-speed automatic transmission". To be untechnical: "The engine and/or transmission used in, not only the '84 Trans Am, but also in pretty much half every taxicab, pickup, Corvette, station wagon, police car, Camaro, and SUV sold by GM for over a decade." In other words, dirt is slightly less common.