Wild Rides

Between serious safety and environmental concerns, the Toyota Prius isn't the angel that everyone thinks it is.

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. During a recall of floor mats used in other Toyota models, Prius owners were simply cautioned to make sure their floor mats were properly installed.* Another 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."

Prius sales have dropped 90 percent at one Houston dealership, and the Houston Hybrid and Hypermilers Club hasn't met since gas prices dropped.
Dan Bryant
Prius sales have dropped 90 percent at one Houston dealership, and the Houston Hybrid and Hypermilers Club hasn't met since gas prices dropped.
Houstonian Dan Bryant rigged his Prius with gauges and switches that make driving the car "seem like playing a video game."
Daniel Kramer
Houstonian Dan Bryant rigged his Prius with gauges and switches that make driving the car "seem like playing a video game."

Most owners, like Riner, deny they were mistaken about where the brake pedal is. At the same time, most aren't looking to sue; they say they just want an explanation and a fair deal.

As Ted James from Eagle, Colorado, puts it (his Prius ended up in a river), "We're not the kind of people to go through a lawsuit, and it's not in our nature. Our concern was that no one else got hurt, that Toyota own up to its problem."

_____________________

At a Starbucks in a retail strip on the northeastern outskirts of Houston, not far from the Hewlett-Packard building where he works as a computer engineer, Dan Bryant orders a tall coffee and a glass of ice water. The coffee is steaming hot and Bryant pours in some water and stirs.

Bryant is a self-admitted Prian — a name fanatic Prius owners affectionately call themselves. It's rained all morning, so Bryant parked his 2007 black Prius near the front of the coffee shop.

"Saving gas isn't really as en vogue as it would be in some of the other more liberal cities, with [Houston] being the energy capital of the world," Bryant says. "But after 9/11, I kind of saw it as my responsibility. I have a big political stance where I don't really want to buy a lot of foreign oil, not as much from an environmental standpoint but from a national security standpoint."

Before his life as a Prian, Bryant already got what he considered great gas mileage out of his Mazda 6 — about 27 miles per gallon — but he wanted a hybrid. Other models and makes were available when he was shopping, but the Prius seemed the only option, and that's the way it's been for most car buyers since hybrids were launched in the United States.

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 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 catch-up 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-sized 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."

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