Wild Rides

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

Last summer, Bryant teamed up with Houston radio host Michael Garfield — the High-Tech Texan — to attempt an 880-mile trip on one tank of gas. Driving Priuses, they drove from Houston to Corpus Christi, San Antonio, Austin, Dallas and back to Houston. Bryant made it on one tank; Garfield did not.

"We'd roll into every town, and the exposure we got from local media was amazing. Inside Edition even contacted me wanting to set up an interview," Garfield says. "Toyota was ecstatic."

Garfield has been driving a Highlander hybrid courtesy of Toyota, and when the 2010 Prius is released, the company is giving him one of those.

Hummers are the anti-Prius, but at a dealership south of Houston, salesman Kenny Triola suggests, "We could always put a Prius on top of a H2 and get through anything."
Paul Knight
Hummers are the anti-Prius, but at a dealership south of Houston, salesman Kenny Triola suggests, "We could always put a Prius on top of a H2 and get through anything."

"I'm not the big environmental guy. I recycle, but I'm not aware of it," Garfield says. "My job is to make more people, viewers and listeners, aware. Prius is light-years ahead of the other technology out there."

The Prius is actually light-years behind, according to 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.

One good thing about the Prius, Korthof says, is that it keeps nickel-metal hydride batteries — used in some EV1s — alive. In 2000, oil giant Chevron acquired the patents to the sophisticated batteries Toyota used in its all-electric RAV4, but as the result of a lawsuit settlement, Toyota can still use the technology in its hybrid vehicles.

Furthermore, Korthof says, any car that focuses on energy conservation, even if it's "no solution to oil," is a good thing.

"The Japanese are very clever. The Prius is actually a heuristic device to teach Americans about energy efficiency," Korthof says. "Everybody that drives a Prius can see their energy usage right on the screen, so people drive a little more conscious."


_____________________

Toyota loves Hollywood.

Celebrities like 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 the leverage of being 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, co-founder 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 bigger, 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 an easy target for the global-warming-is-a-myth guy, not to mention the writers at Family Guy and South Park.

Brian Griffin, the family 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 starts 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 people in 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."


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Ted James was a believer, not only in the Prius but also in Toyota.

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