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Bobette Riner bought a brand-new Toyota Prius last year to flip the bird at oil companies.
"I felt so smug for a while," she says.
She was lucky to score the car, because for nearly a year there had been a three-month wait to get a Prius. The dealership couldn't even keep a model for the showroom.
The car had a "cute little body" that Riner loved, and she reveled in watching the energy usage display on the car's center console, trying to drain every possible mile from a gallon of gasoline. When she hit 2,000 miles, she could count her trips to the gas station on one hand.
On a rainy night last fall, a couple of months after Riner bought her Prius, she was driving to a sales meeting. She hated driving in the rain because a car wreck in college catapulted her through the windshield and doctors almost had to amputate her leg.
Traffic was congested but moving, and Riner kept the Prius pegged at 60 mph, constantly looking at the console to manage her fuel consumption.
Suddenly, she felt the car hydroplaning out of control, and when she glanced at the speedometer, she realized the car had shot up to 84 mph. Riner wasn't hydroplaning; quite simply, her Prius had accelerated on its own.
She stepped on the brakes, but they were dead. Then, just as suddenly as the car had taken off, it shut down. The console lit up with warning lights, leaving Riner fighting a stiff steering wheel as she coasted across four lanes of traffic and down an exit ramp.
The car stopped near a PetSmart parking lot, and Riner sat in disbelief, wondering if her new car had gone crazy.
The Prius is one of the great success stories of the past decade, becoming the one vehicle synonymous with "hybrid" and helping Toyota tap into a skeptical American auto market while the Big Three failed and failed again to produce efficient vehicles.
The car is the status symbol of the geeky, green, environmentally conscious elite. Meryl Streep once said, "If everybody that had two cars had a Prius instead of an SUV, we wouldn't be in the Middle East right now."
From day one, Prius came in for its share of criticism as well. Early reports claimed the manufacturing is so complex and uses so much energy that the car stomps out a troublingly deep carbon footprint.
Doug Korthof, who lives about 20 miles south of Toyota headquarters in Torrance, California, was featured in the 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? and pickets Toyota to this day. "They were looking at all different ways to avoid doing the electric car, and one of those was the Prius," Korthof says.
Now, another side of the Prius has orbited into view, as owners share horror stories on blogs and message boards while critics pounce. It's not only the need-for-green skeptics who spit vitriol at anyone who suggests that Americans could be harming the planet, but also loyal Prius drivers who are crashing their cars through forests, garage doors, and gas stations, from Florida to Washington State.
Take Lupe Egusquiza from Tustin, California. She was waiting in a line of cars in September 2007 to pick up her daughter from school when her Prius suddenly took off and crashed into the school's brick wall. Egusquiza reported $14,000 worth of damage to her car.
Or Stacey Josefowicz in Anthem, Arizona, who bought her new Prius in May 2007. A couple of months later, driving down a four-lane highway toward a stoplight, she stepped on the brakes but nothing happened. She freaked and then weaved into a turning lane, coasting to a Target parking lot with the brake pedal jammed to the floor. A Toyota technician told her she had run out of gas, but she objected that that wasn't true; there was fuel in the car. Still, he returned the Prius to her with no repairs.
A month later, she sped through a stop sign when the brakes went out again. "I think they thought, She's a woman driver; she obviously let the car run out of gas," Josefowicz says. "Thank God I didn't get killed or cause an accident. It would have been on their head."
Or Herbert Kuehn from Battle Creek, Michigan. In October 2005, his Prius sped out of control on a highway before he "labored" the car to a stop on the gravel shoulder of the road. He was so afraid of his Prius that he stopped driving it, but "under good conscience did not feel that I could sell it."
Jaded Prius owners say there's no resolution with Toyota — through their hometown dealer or corporate arbitration — and the company hasn't lost or settled a single lawsuit concerning "unintended acceleration."
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has two Prius investigations in its database from 2004 and 2005, but those involved the car's cooling system. An explanation from Toyota is simple driver error.
"You get these customers that say, 'I stood on the brake with all my might and the car just kept on accelerating.' They're not stepping on the brake," says corporate Toyota spokesman Bill Kwong. "People are so under stress right now; people have so much on their minds. With pagers and cell phones and IM, people are just so busy with kids and family and boyfriends and girlfriends. So, you're driving along and the next thing you know you're two miles down the road and you don't remember driving, because you're thinking about something else."