DETROIT – Toyota Motor Corp.’s precipitous drop in the 2010 J.D. Power & Associates Initial Quality Study isn’t “the beginning of the end,” says an executive with the marketing firm.

“This is an unusual position for Toyota in a quality study,” David Sargent tells the Automotive Press Assn. here. “In the 24 years we’ve conducted the study, Toyota has been better than average in the first 23 years.”

In the study, which measures new-vehicle quality based on surveys of buyers after 90 days of ownership, Toyota averaged 117 problems per 100 vehicles, moving it from sixth place in 2009 to 21st this year.

Sargent says Toyota’s recent spate of recalls directly led to its decline in the IQS.

“The recalls had a substantial effect on Toyota’s performance,” he says.

Since last fall, the auto maker has called back millions of vehicles in the U.S. for everything from steering issues in the Lexus LS to stability-control system woes in the Lexus GX, corrosion problems involving the Toyota Sienna minivan and sticking accelerator pedals and ill-fitting floor mats in a number of models.

The last two issues thrust Toyota into an intense media spotlight and prompted a Congressional investigation.

Nearly all of the problems reported to J.D. Power by Toyota owners were related to the recalls, Sargent says, signaling consumers were influenced by the intense media coverage.

“We did see further evidence of many more complaints in the areas of things like brakes, floor mats and pedals,” he says. “I think some of it is real; some of it is customers paying a lot more attention to these areas of the vehicles than they have in the past.”

Previously, many of the perceived problems would have gone unnoticed and unreported, Sargent says. “What we’ve found in the past is people who have a vehicle recall (for an issue they) don’t themselves actually experience or recognize, typically don’t report it as a problem.”

Toyota vehicles that weren’t recalled improved their scores in this year’s study, Sargent says. “Unfortunately 87% of the vehicles (Toyota) produced were recalled for the ’10 model year.”

Prior to this year, the Toyota’s lowest IQS ranking was 13th in 1998.

Ironically, that was the year J.D. Power made changes to its study, adding design-related elements rather than covering only manufacturing issues.

“When we introduced design problems – things that were hard to use or weren’t designed particularly well --Toyota for a year stepped back (in the IQS), but studied and caught back up,” Sargent says.

This year’s drop likely came as no surprise to Toyota, he says. “I think some of their internal metrics identified this would be an issue for them.

“I think they’re trying to wrestle with the distinction between mechanical problems with the vehicles and how consumers are reacting to those.”

Like it did in 1998, Sargent expects Toyota to rebound rather quickly, but warns fully restoring its once sterling reputation won’t be easy.

“We’re not quite sure, but it’s likely Toyota will probably show improvement next year,” he says. “What may take longer to recover is their reputation, which has clearly taken a hit.”

– with Christie Schweinsberg