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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."
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.
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 HybridCars.com 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.
"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."
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."
"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 ConsumerAffairs.com, 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."
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.
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."
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?"