The Toyota Prius: Hybrid Hell

It can be a devil to drive.

"It was very scary, but finally after stomping it a few times, I finally did stop without hitting anyone," Sherman says.

The dealer told her the floor mat probably caught the gas pedal, but she says the "floor mats were nowhere near the accelerator."

"Of course they made excuses, and then they said something about the computer, all gibber-jabber," Sherman says. "I told them: 'Garbage — I was driving it, and I know what happened.' There definitely is a problem."

Hummers are the anti-Prius, but car salesman Kenny Triola suggests, "We could always put a Prius on top of an H2 and get through anything."
Paul Knight
Hummers are the anti-Prius, but car salesman Kenny Triola suggests, "We could always put a Prius on top of an H2 and get through anything."

She never thought about getting rid of the Prius, because "I loved the car and still like the car very much."

Many auto reviewers have also raved about the Prius. In 2008, the car ranked second in overall quality in a survey by J.D. Power and Associates, and it won the IntelliChoice Best in Overall Value in its class award.

Peter Clothier, a contributor to the Huffington Post, wrote, "My new Prius, the second one, is silver, and my only gripe is that there are too many of this color on the road."

Gas mileage is another big draw of the Prius, and "hypermilers" take that to the extreme. Dan Bryant, who owns a black Prius, turned driving his car into a full-time hobby. He installed aftermarket gauges and an engine kill-switch — ordered from Japan — that makes driving seem like playing a videogame, Bryant says, with a goal of getting the most mileage out of a tank of fuel.

He's constantly shifting the car to neutral, switching off the engine, and looking at his gauges to track things such as pressure on the gas pedal and engine temperature, both of which affect gas mileage. Bryant coasts into stops without brakes when he can. He usually averages about 60 to 70 miles per gallon, but he got 91 out of his best tank and took a picture to prove it.

"When you're only buying 40 gallons of gas [a month], two dollars a gallon or five dollars a gallon is basically the difference between eating out a couple nights," Bryant says. "The biggest thing about it was that we didn't really notice it."

The Prius is actually light-years behind, according to Who Killed the Electric Car's Korthof, who still sings the praises of the General Motors EV1. GM produced the electric cars from 1996 to 1999, and Korthof leased one until 2003, when all EV1 "owners" were forced to return the cars, which were later destroyed by GM. The controversy surrounding the company's decision is the focus of the documentary.


Toyota loves Hollywood.

Celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz drove the Prius from the beginning, but in 2003, the company hired a public relations firm to "bring Hollywood stars and Prius cars together [at the Oscars], replacing the gas-guzzling stretch limo as the ride of choice for eco-aware celebrities," according to a Prius newsletter. Diaz, Harrison Ford, Calista Flockhart, Susan Sarandon, and Tim Robbins arrived in chauffeured Priuses.

The following year, at the Environmental Media Awards, "more than 60 celebrities and Hollywood glitterati demonstrated their commitment to the environment by arriving in the super ultra low-emission hybrids," says a Toyota press release. There was even a "Prius Only" lane near the red carpet.

Celebrities drove other hybrids too, but the Prius had an advantage: It was ugly.

"People were buying hybrids as a fashion statement. What's the good of driving something you paid extra for, because you think you're saving the universe, and nobody knows it?" says Art Spinella, cofounder and president of CNW Marketing Research, headquartered in Bandon, Oregon. "One of the things we found with the Honda Accord hybrid — they stopped producing it — was that people complained because it wasn't visible enough."

In 2007, the New York Times published data from a CNW report that said almost 60 percent of Prius owners bought the car because it "makes a statement about me." For its other hybrids, Toyota made the "Hybrid Synergy Drive" badges on the outside of the cars 25 percent larger, hoping to cash in on the Prius effect.

"It's great for somebody that wants to make a statement that I'm trying to do something good for the Earth, that I care about the environment and the future, foreign oil, or whatever their personal views are. [The Prius] helps them to express that," Toyota spokesman Kwong says.

The do-gooder attitude makes the Prius and its owners easy targets for the global-warming-is-a-myth guy, not to mention the writers of Family Guy and South Park.

Brian Griffin, the talking dog on Fox's Family Guy, drives a Prius. He also smokes pot, drinks martinis, attended Brown University, wrote for The New Yorker, and is an atheist.

The South Park episode titled "Smug Alert!" opens with a character's dad pulling up to a neighbor's house in a brand-new Toyonda Pious, and when the neighbor asks if the car is a hybrid, the dad replies, "I just couldn't sit back and be a part of destroying the Earth anymore."

He begins writing fake tickets to SUV owners for "Failure to Care about the Environment," and when the Colorado rednecks get mad at him, he moves his family to San Francisco, where "everyone is motivated and progressive." The residents of South Park eventually buy Piouses, causing a thick cloud of "smug" to hang over the town. Too much smug in the atmosphere, one character says, leads to "global laming."

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