The Toyota Prius: Hybrid Hell

It can be a devil to drive.

"The Prius is kind of a gimmicky car. Toyota originally designed it for young geeks in Tokyo — gadget-crazy young guys," says Jim Hood, a writer who worked for the Associated Press for 15 years and covered the automotive industry for part of that time. "Then the crazy Americans fell for it."

Stories from Prius owners involving unintended acceleration are fairly common, and one of the first places to publish them was, which collects about 400 complaints a day that are read by editors and then stored in an online database.

"One of the trends we started to see was that there were odd things going on with the Prius, not only with the acceleration but with loss of traction on slippery surfaces," says Hood, the former AP writer who now owns the website. "The Prius was something a little different when it came out, so we paid a little more attention to it than if it was a brand-new pickup or something."

Bobette Riner had her Prius for a couple of months before it took off and died, leaving her stranded on the side of the road. Now she's stuck with a car she's afraid to drive.
Daniel Kramer
Bobette Riner had her Prius for a couple of months before it took off and died, leaving her stranded on the side of the road. Now she's stuck with a car she's afraid to drive.

The site's automotive writer, Joe Benton, wrote about unintended acceleration for the first time in summer 2007, telling the story of a woman in Everett, Washington, whose Prius took off while she was on the interstate and wouldn't slow down even as she repeatedly pumped the brakes.

Hood received hate mail from Prius owners when the negative story was posted.

"They're zealots and religious about their cars," Hood says. "Quite honestly, we don't give a damn about anything. If people want to drive those things, fine by us, but our job is to criticize and nitpick."

Then the other horror stories rolled in.

One came from Richard Bacon, a Tacoma, Washington resident who wrote, "This week our 2008 Prius tried to kill me twice." Bacon's Prius died while he was driving up his snowy driveway, causing him to slide into oncoming traffic "that just missed hitting me broadside."

Then he was driving with his wife, merging into traffic at 45 mph, and he crossed over a patch of snow. The Prius locked up and Bacon lost control and skidded toward a 30-foot drop down the side of the road. "Only a snowbank kept my wife and me from serious injury or death," he wrote.

Toyota recalled the floor mats about two months after the first story ran on Hood's website. From a company press release: "If properly secured, the All Weather Floor Mat will not interfere with the accelerator pedal. Suggested opportunities to check are after filling the vehicle's tank with gasoline, after a carwash or interior cleaning, or before driving the vehicle. Under no circumstances should more than one floor mat ever be used in the driver's seating position: the retaining hooks are designed to accommodate only one floor mat at a time."

New Times found only one person currently in litigation with Toyota concerning unintended acceleration. Art Robinson, the man involved in that crash, wouldn't speak with us (saying his lawyer has advised him not to), but a Toyota spokeswoman confirmed the lawsuit, declining to comment further.

Apparently, hours after Robinson purchased his 2005 Prius in Tacoma, Washington, the car began to handle funny, and as he was driving back to the dealership, the car took off. Robinson stomped on the brake and the emergency brake, but the car wouldn't slow down.

He exited the freeway and safely shot through an intersection but then lost control and drove through a convenience store. Robinson escaped before the Prius and the building burst into flames.

"It happened so fast I didn't have time to be scared then," Robinson told a Tacoma news station.

"I'd have to say most Prius buyers are just pure mooches," says Kenny Triola, a manager at a Hummer dealership. "They're just trying to squeeze every dime, stretch everything so thin out of life. I don't think most people buy a Prius to save the environment. I think it's to save their pocketbooks."

The Prius is a particularly sore subject for Triola and his sales force. Hummer sales dropped about 60 percent last summer, Triola says, and even as oil prices fall, the Hummer has remained a pariah.

The dealership recently received a shipment of Hummer H3Ts, a new truck model for 2009. Not one had been sold.

"You see these things? They're done — dinosaurs," Triola says, pointing at the parking lot full of Hummers. "I've never even driven any hybrid vehicle, but if it betters the economy and the environmental thing, that's good, but you could say I'm somewhat against the idea of it. But I'm old school."

Hanging above the showroom entrance is a picture of an H2 splashing through a river on its way up a muddy hill. Triola glances up at it and says, "When the storms hit, and there are hurricanes and tornadoes and floods, the Hummers have assisted with so much relief. Every individual would like the opportunity to do so, but with the Prius, you ain't going to have that chance. We could always put a Prius on top of an H2 and get through anything."

While the Prius has been the lightning rod of the need-for-green skeptic, the Hummer has come to symbolize the environmental Antichrist. Last summer, for instance, a 72-year-old man carved Xs into a teenager's Hummer in a high school parking lot.

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