Wild Rides

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

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, a co-founder of the Pacific Institute. "We realized it just wasn't right."

The Pacific Institute report took issue, among other things, with errors in analysis, misuse of certainty and uncertainty and the lack of transparency in regard to funding.

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.

"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 that 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."


_____________________

It doesn't take much of a pitch to sell a Prius, says Johnny "J-Mac" McFolling, a salesman at Houston's Mike Calvert Toyota.

McFolling wouldn't drive a Prius, he says, because he's a big man and everyone in his family is big, too, but he loved the car 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 last six months, and McFolling says Prius sales have dropped 90 percent since summer while Toyota truck sales have increased. The dealership was selling 25 Priuses a month and could've moved more if Toyota had delivered them, but those days are gone.

Mike Calvert sold 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 she'd 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 other owners of runaway Priuses have fared differently:

Sherman loves her Prius and is keeping it until it takes off again on its own.

After his wild test drive, McGuire walked away from the Prius but was determined to buy Toyota. He got a Camry that rattles more than any American car he's owned, and he says he won't buy Toyota again.

The Jameses kept their mangled Prius for as long as possible, hoping Toyota would take it to a laboratory for examination, but when their insurance company pressured them, they let it go. Ted James bought a new Volkswagen Jetta six-speed, so if it goes wild, "all you have to do is push in the clutch."

The Prius that Riner 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?"

paul.knight@houstonpress.com

*Correction, April 28, 2009: The original version of this article mischaracterized the action taken by Toyota in response to complaints that the Prius had uncontrolled acceleration. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

**Correction, April 28, 2009: The original version of this article mischaracterized the action taken by Toyota in response to complaints that the Prius had uncontrolled acceleration. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

***Correction, April 28, 2009: The original version of this article mischaracterized the action taken by Toyota in response to complaints that the Prius had uncontrolled acceleration. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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