The Toyota Prius: Hybrid Hell

It can be a devil to drive.

The man was arrested after being caught on video from the Hummer's onboard security cameras. About the same time, Priuses were being firebombed in San Francisco.

The feud between Prious and Hummer owners escalated with the release of another Spinella report, "Dust to Dust," published in spring 2007. The report ranked hundreds of vehicles on the amount of energy it took to "plan, build, sell, drive, and dispose of a vehicle from initial concept to scrappage."

Spinella and a team of researchers used data from the automakers, and in the final report, the Prius had an environmental impact that was worse than the Hummer. The first publication to mention the report was the college newspaper at Central Connecticut State University, where the writer referred to the "seedy underworld of hybrids."

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.

When that editorial was lionized by Rush Limbaugh, followed by conservative columnist George Will, who wrote, "perhaps it is environmentally responsible to buy [a Hummer] and squash a Prius with it," things got out of hand and Spinella was crucified.

An article in the online magazine Slate compared the report to urban legends about "poisoned ATM deposit envelopes" and the "dangers of flashing your headlights."

"There's a minuscule grain of truth to the allegation, since the Prius's nickel-metal hydride battery is a more complicated beast than your typical EverStart," wrote Slate columnist Brendan I. Koerner. "But the rest of the case against the best-selling hybrid? Malarkey."

The Prius's batteries have been a particular sore spot, because it's difficult to maintain that the mining, manufacturing, and disposal of the nickel-metal hydride battery are conducive to a green lifestyle.

But Koerner argues, "All cars contain nickel in their frames. The Hummer's frame, for example, has twice as much nickel as the Prius's. Also, nickel is 80 percent to 95 percent recoverable during the recycling process."

When Prius batteries die, dealerships take them and Toyota pays $200 for each returned battery as part of its recycling program. The company is also touting smaller batteries in the 2010 model, though the new Prius will still use the nickel cells.

"Toyota currently has the most sophisticated methods of disposing of the nickel batteries found in Prius," Spinella writes in the report. "But to do so today is likely to remain energy intense and unprofitable until the quantity of such batteries is high enough to encourage others to invest in the development of better recycling methods."

The Pacific Institute, which works to "create a healthier planet and sustainable communities," also responded to "Dust to Dust," with a seven-page rebuttal.

"It just didn't seem logical to us that hybrids or smaller compact cars would have a higher total energy component than bigger SUVs, and that's sort of raised it to our attention," says Peter Gleick, cofounder of the Pacific Institute. "We realized it just wasn't right."

The Pacific Institute report took issue with, among other things, errors in analysis, misuse of certainty and uncertainty, and the lack of transparency with respect to funding.

"The truth is it's been completely discredited from an analytical point of view," Gleick says. "It's sometimes hard to convince people that they're wrong."

Spinella stands by the findings published in "Dust to Dust," and he says the report shouldn't boil down to Hummer versus Prius.

"They should compare [the Prius] to the Corolla. No one thinking about buying a Prius is going to be persuaded to buy a Hummer," Spinella says. "If you're in Los Angeles, the clear answer is Prius, but your carbon footprint isn't just where you are. It isn't any better for the world environment, because it takes more energy to produce."

Johnny "J-Mac" McFolling wouldn't drive a Prius, he says, because he's a big man and everyone in his family is big too. But he loves the cars. Indeed, he sells them. He particularly loved them when they all sold at "sticker price or higher."

"You can tell a Prius owner, not by looking at them, but as soon as they start talking," McFolling says. "You don't have to sell a Prius; they're already sold when someone comes through that door."

Those buyers haven't been around much in the past six months, and McFolling says Prius sales have dropped 90 percent since last summer while Toyota truck sales have increased. The dealership was selling 25 Priuses a month and could have moved more if Toyota had delivered them, but those days are gone.

Mike Calvert sold Bobette Riner her Prius, but after the technician told her the car took off because she was low on gas, she wanted nothing to do with it.

The dealer offered about $12,000 less than what Riner had paid for the car, explaining he couldn't sell a Prius to save his life.

"He said, 'The market is soft for Priuses because of gas prices,'" Riner says.

The Prius she bought brand-new sat in her garage for a while because she hoped Toyota would change its mind about its offer. She just recently set an arbitration date with the company, and when she had the option of meeting at a dealership or fighting the case through the mail, she chose not to meet.

Unless she eats the $12,000, she's stuck with a car she's afraid to drive.

"There's some liberal embarrassment here," Riner says. "I hear all the time, 'This is the first, this is the best, this will save the world.' But what are we getting guilted into?"

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