The Toyota Prius: Hybrid Hell

It can be a devil to drive.

From 2000 to 2008, about 1.3 million hybrids sold in the country, according to numbers from the U.S. Department of Energy, and Priuses accounted for more than half of those sales. Every year except 2006, Priuses sold more than all other hybrid models combined.

"There are some people that want to drive a unique 'top hat' that looks different," says Praveen Cherian, who worked in Detroit as Ford's lead engineer on its new hybrid, the Fusion. "But we know there are people out there who don't want to be driving a car, screaming, 'Look at me, I'm an environmentally conscious guy.'"

Ford certainly hasn't found those people, and like other American carmakers, the company has played catchup to the Prius in recent years but has gained little or no ground. In 2008, the closest competitor to the Prius was Toyota's Camry hybrid, followed by the Honda Civic. That year, Toyota moved about 159,000 Priuses; Honda sold about 31,000 of the Civic hybrids, and Chevy barely sold 2,000 of its Malibu hybrid.

Doug Korthof lives near Toyota headquarters in California. He thinks the Prius helped kill the electric car.
Jennie Warren
Doug Korthof lives near Toyota headquarters in California. He thinks the Prius helped kill the electric car.
Dan Bryant rigged his Prius with gauges and switches that make driving the car "seem like playing a videogame."
Daniel Kramer
Dan Bryant rigged his Prius with gauges and switches that make driving the car "seem like playing a videogame."

But if things had gone as planned, the American carmakers could be dominating the hybrid market.

In 1993, the Clinton administration developed the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, awarding federal funds to Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors and giving the companies access to federal research agencies. The goal was to develop a car that got more than three times the gas mileage of full-size vehicles already on the road.

Toyota was left out of the New Generation program, but it responded in 1994 by officially starting Project G21, its program designed to develop an environmentally friendly car. Three years later, the first Prius was released in Japan.

Chrysler, Ford, and GM still hadn't shown any New Generation prototypes by the end of the decade, but an unveiling was scheduled for January 2000 at Detroit's North American International Auto Show.

Heralded in newspaper accounts as a possible breakthrough, some of the designs certainly were radical, but, as it turns out, actually were just for dreamers. Each company rolled out a New Generation car, but after the show, the prototypes disappeared from public view.

The federal government had already fed more than $1 billion to the three automakers — at a time when the American manufacturers were still highly profitable — with few results. The New Generation program was a failure at best; Ralph Nader called it "corporate welfare at its worst."

The Bush administration killed the project in 2002.

Meanwhile, Toyota was priming the U.S. market for the Prius, led by David Hermance, now known as the Father of the American Prius.

Hermance, who lived in Gardena, California, worked as the top hybrid engineer at Toyota when the car was released in the United States in 2000, and although he didn't have a hand in designing the first-generation Prius — it was strictly Japanese engineering — he furiously promoted and explained the car's technology to the media and legislators.

In an interview with in 2004, Hermance said his involvement with the Prius was an environmental mission. "I'm convinced that global warming is real and that if we're not principally responsible, we're at least contributing to that," he told the interviewer. "I'd like to leave the planet a little better than I found it."

The second-generation Prius, the model in production today, was directly engineered by Hermance, and he focused on making the car fun and peppy; his designs and marketing are credited for breaking the car mainstream. The new Prius was released in 2004, winning Motor Trend Car of the Year and a heap of other accolades.

A year later, Toyota sold 100,000 Priuses for the first time, and sales more than doubled each of the first two years the second generation was built.

"He was just a brilliant engineer and was really for the hybrid. He educated a lot of people," Toyota spokesman Kwong says.

Hermance died in fall 2006 when the small plane he was piloting crashed into the Pacific Ocean.

Barbara Sherman, a 69-year-old retiree, bought a Prius just after Christmas 2007 for her and her husband to drive around their retirement community of Winter Haven, near Orlando.

"They were a little more than I had anticipated them being, but we had pretty much made up our minds that we were going to buy one," Sherman says. "I loved the car. It drove great and had a lot of pick-up."

An odd thing happened, however, on a trip to North Carolina. Sherman and her husband had driven the Prius down a steep hill, on a road cut through some woods, to spend an afternoon parked along a riverbank. The Prius slipped on some gravel on the drive back, and its wheels just stopped.

"I thought we were going to have to get someone to tow us out, and that would've been a long walk to town, but we were able to back down the hill and get a bigger running start. We managed to get it out and just decided to never take it down there again," Sherman says. "That was the first problem."

The second problem happened while Sherman was driving in Winter Haven, waiting at a stop sign to turn onto a busy street. The traffic cleared a bit and Sherman sped up to merge, but quickly had to hit the brakes for an approaching stoplight. Except her Prius kept going.

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