Wild Rides

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

He exited the freeway and shot through an intersection safely, 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 Seattle news station.

Despite Elizabeth James's injuries, the couple never pursued a lawsuit against Toyota, and even if they wanted to, the Colorado statute of limitations ran out during the summer of last year.

Houstonian Bobette Riner had her Prius for a couple 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
Houstonian Bobette Riner had her Prius for a couple 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.
Doug Korthof lives near Toyota headquarters in California. He thinks the Prius helped kill the electric car.
Jennie Warren
Doug Korthof lives near Toyota headquarters in California. He thinks the Prius helped kill the electric car.

"I'm not out to get Toyota; we owned three Toyota vehicles at one time, and we still have a 2000 Sienna and a 2006 Corolla that we'll drive until they die because they're good cars," Ted James says. "The fact that she could crash at 90 miles an hour, well, she'll say, 'First the Prius tried to kill me, and then it saved my life.'"


"I'd have to say most Prius buyers are just pure mooches," says Kenny Triola, a manager at a Hummer dealership south of Houston. "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."

In the showroom there is a picture above the entrance 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 in the Dallas suburb of Southlake.

The man was arrested after being videoed by the Hummer's onboard security cameras. He told police he was having personal problems and keyed the boy's Hummer because of "environmental concerns," according to an article in The Dallas Morning News. The man received five years' probation.

About the same time, Priuses were being firebombed in San Francisco.

The feud between the Prians and Hummer owners escalated with the release of another Spinella report, "Dust to Dust," released in the spring of 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 hard 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'. 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."

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