Wild Rides

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

The project was killed by the Bush administration 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 while 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.

Elizabeth James was driving on the interstate when her Prius accelerated out of control near Lawson, Colorado. She crashed through a wooded area...
Ted James
Elizabeth James was driving on the interstate when her Prius accelerated out of control near Lawson, Colorado. She crashed through a wooded area...
...and ended up in a river.
Ted James
...and ended up in a river.

In an interview with the Web site www.hybridcars.com in 2004, Hermance said his involvement with the Prius was an environmental mission for him, even if it wasn't for "the mainstream marketing folks."

"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," Kwong says.

Hermance died in the fall of 2006 after crashing his airplane into the Pacific Ocean.

_____________________

Barbara Sherman, a 69-year-old retiree from North Carolina, bought a Prius just after Christmas in 2007 for her and her husband to drive around their retirement community of Winter Haven, Florida.

"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 pickup."

An odd thing happened, however, on a trip back to the family's home in 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 into 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. Trouble is, 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 that 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. Bryant — he owns the 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 video game, 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 like 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], $2 a gallon or $5 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."

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