Wild Rides

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

Bobette Riner publishes an electricity index used to promote renewable energy, and she bought a brand-new Prius last year to shoot the bird at the oil companies.

"I felt so smug for a while," she says. "Especially being in Houston."

She was lucky to score the car from a dealership on Houston's south side, because there had been a three-month wait for nearly a year to get a Prius. The dealership couldn't even keep a model for the showroom.

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.
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."
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.
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."

The car had a "cute little body" that Riner loved, and she reveled in driving like a "nerdy Prius owner," watching the energy usage display on the car's center console, trying to drain every possible mile from a gallon of gasoline. When she hit 2,000 miles, she could count her trips to a gas station on one hand.

On a rainy night last fall, a couple months after Riner bought her Prius, she was driving toward the Galleria for a sales meeting. She hated driving in the rain because a car wreck in college catapulted her through the windshield and doctors almost had to amputate her leg.

Traffic near the mall was congested but moving, and Riner kept the Prius pegged at 60 mph, constantly looking at the console to manage her fuel consumption.

Suddenly, she felt the car hydroplaning out of control, and when she glanced at the speedometer she realized the car had shot up to 84 mph. Riner wasn't hydroplaning; quite simply, her Prius had accelerated on its own.

She pushed on the brakes but they were dead. Then, just as suddenly as the car had taken off, it shut down. The console lit up with warning lights, leaving Riner fighting a stiff steering wheel as she coasted across four lanes of traffic and down an exit ramp.

The car stopped near a PetSmart parking lot, and Riner sat in disbelief, listening to fat raindrops pelt the Prius, wondering if her new car had actually gone crazy.

The Prius is one of the great success stories of the last decade, becoming the one car synonymous with "hybrid" and helping Toyota drill into a skeptical American auto market while the Big Three failed and failed again to produce efficient vehicles.

The car is the status symbol of the geeky, green, environmentally conscious do-gooder (not to mention certain liberal, high-profile Hollywood celebrities), making it a favorite of the earthy elite. Meryl Streep once said, "If everybody that had two cars had a Prius instead of an SUV, we wouldn't be in the Middle East right now."

Prius owners don't have to tell you they want to help lead the country to energy independence and lower our carbon footprints, because the Prius already says, "I'm doing my part."

From day one, Prius came in for its share of criticism as well. Early reports claimed that the manufacturing is so complex and uses so much energy that the Prius stomps out a troublingly deep carbon footprint.

Doug Korthof, who lives about 20 miles south of Toyota headquarters in Torrance, California, was featured in the 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? and pickets Toyota to this day. As an electric-car fanatic, Korthof loathes the Prius.

"They were looking at all different ways to avoid doing the electric car, and one of those was the Prius," Korthof says. "They could say, 'We'll make a car that's a hybrid, and then you won't need an electric car.' The Prius was their way of getting out of the electric car and it worked." Now, another side of the Prius has orbited into view, as owners share horror stories on blogs and message boards while critics pounce. It's not only the need-for-green skeptics who spit vitriol at anyone who suggests that Americans could be harming the planet, but loyal Prius drivers who are crashing their cars through forests, garage doors and gas stations, from Washington to Michigan to New York.

Take Lupe Egusquiza from Tustin, California. She was waiting in a line of cars in September 2007 to pick up her daughter from school when her Prius suddenly took off and crashed into the school's brick wall. Egusquiza reported $14,000 worth of damage to her car.

Or Stacey Josefowicz in Anthem, Arizona, who bought her new Prius in May 2007. A couple months later, driving down a four-lane highway toward a stoplight, she stepped on the brakes but nothing happened. She freaked, then weaved into a turning lane, coasting to a Target parking lot with the brake pedal jammed to the floor. A Toyota technician told her she ran out of gas, but she objected that that wasn't true; there was fuel in the car. Still, he returned her Prius to her with no repairs.

A month later, she sped through a stop sign when the brakes went out again. "I think they thought, 'She's a woman driver, she obviously let the car run out of gas,'" Josefowicz says. "Thank God I didn't get killed or cause an accident; it would have been on their head."

Or Herbert Kuehn from Battle Creek, Michigan. In October 2005, his Prius sped out of control on a highway before he "labored" the car to a stop on the gravel shoulder of the road. He was so scared of his Prius that he stopped driving it, but "under good conscience did not feel that I could sell it."

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."

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."

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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."

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.

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."

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.

"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."


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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."


_____________________

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

About the time the Prius was released in America, James, a middle-school math teacher from Eagle, Colorado, received a $10,000 Toyota Time grant that was given to 35 math teachers around the country to develop inventive programs.

James used his money to buy equipment to monitor the water quality of a local watershed, and his students used advanced math techniques to analyze the data they collected.

In 2002, Toyota paid for James, along with the other Time winners, to travel to the company's U.S. headquarters in Torrance, California, and talk about their projects. During a lunch break one day, Toyota executives introduced the group to the Prius. Each teacher was outfitted with one of the hybrids for a day of driving around Torrance.

"I thought they were the coolest thing ever," James says. He and his wife Elizabeth, who teaches at an elementary school, bought their first Prius three years later.

"I was very proud because we were the first teachers in the parking lot to be sporting a Prius," he says.

On August 10, 2006, Elizabeth was driving the car east on Interstate 70 toward Denver to catch an early morning flight. Near the small town of Lawson, she pressed the brakes to slow down and when she let off the pedal, the Prius took off. The car wouldn't slow down "no matter how hard I pressed on the brake," so Elizabeth used her left foot to slam down the emergency brake. Nothing.

The brakes spewed blue smoke from the back of the car, and when Elizabeth glanced down, the speedometer displayed 90 mph and the Prius was rocketing towards a car in the slow lane. Gripping the steering wheel with both hands, Elizabeth whipped around that car along the shoulder of the interstate, exited the Lawson ramp, ran a stop sign, passed a couple of people walking in the road and steered into a grassy field when the feeder cut to the left.

"She said she felt like the pilot of a plane that was trying to crash-land," Ted James says. "So she was looking for a place to crash the car, and that was one of the things that were really tough: She thought she was going to die and had enough time to think about it."

The Prius sped through a wooded area, clipped a weather monitoring shed, flipped and landed in a river.

Elizabeth survived the wreck, but her legs and back were banged up and she's still hobbled, despite a year's worth of physical therapy. Scar tissue on her intestines requires her to drink MiraLAX for the rest of her life to ease stomach pains.

After the crash, Ted James enlisted the help of a childhood friend, attorney Kent Spangler (who practiced family law at the time and now is a magistrate in Fort Collins, Colorado), to steer the Jameses through arbitration with Toyota. They wanted Elizabeth's medical bills — about $15,000 — paid and to have the smashed Prius examined for a cause of the wreck.

"You'd think Toyota would be interested in how their car functioned in that crash," Ted James says. "My wife's brother and sister owned Priuses, and we were really worried that this could happen to someone else. Toyota's whole reaction was really disconcerting. It was like deny everything."

Toyota's response was, in fact, minimal. In a letter to James, the company blamed the problem on excessive brake wear, stating, "We are sure she believes that her vehicle accelerated on its own; but our inspection of her vehicle did not reveal any evidence to support her allegations."

Bobette Riner's experience wasn't much better. When her Prius died in front of the parking lot, she composed herself and started the car again because she desperately needed to make her sales meeting. The Prius sputtered along for about a quarter-mile before shutting down again "at a spot where people coming from the Galleria couldn't totally plow into me."

The Toyota dealership where she bought the car sent a tow truck and the driver took Riner to her sales meeting, because she hoped to sell "about $180,000 worth of stuff."

"I ended up being an hour and 20 minutes late, and only one guy stuck around, so I missed that opportunity," Riner says.

The next day, she went to the dealership to find out what happened with her car, and the technician told her, "We know what's wrong with it; you were out of gas."

Riner was shocked because she was certain her gas tank wasn't close to empty, and she wasn't concerned that the Prius shut down; it was the sudden jolt of speed that scared her.

"That was more than being out of gas," Riner says. "How do you explain it suddenly being 84 mph?"

Stories from other Prius owners involving unintended acceleration are fairly common, and one of the first places to publish them was the Web site www.consumeraffairs.com, which collects about 400 complaints a day that are read by editors and then stored in an online database.

"One of the trends we started to see was that there were odd things going on with the Prius, not only with the acceleration but with loss of traction on slippery surfaces," says Hood, the former Associated Press writer who now owns the Web site. "The Prius was something a little different when it came out, so we paid a little more attention to it than if it was a brand-new pickup or something."

The site's automotive writer, Joe Benton, wrote about unintended acceleration for the first time in the summer of 2007, telling the story of a woman in Everett, Washington, whose Prius took off while she was on the interstate and wouldn't slow down even as she repeatedly pumped the brakes.

Hood received hate mail from Prius owners when the negative story was posted.

"They're zealots and religious about their cars," Hood says. "Quite honestly, we don't give a damn about anything. If people want to drive those things, fine by us, but our job is to criticize and nitpick."

Then the other horror stories rolled in.

One came from Richard Bacon, a Tacoma, Washington, resident who wrote, "This week our 2008 Prius tried to kill me twice." Bacon's Prius died while he was driving up his snowy driveway, causing him to slide into oncoming traffic "that just missed hitting me broadside."

Then he was driving with his wife, merging into traffic at 45 mph, and he crossed over a patch of snow. The Prius locked up and Bacon lost control and skidded toward a 30-foot drop down the side of the road. "Only a snowbank kept my wife and me from serious injury or death," he wrote.

Toyota sent out the caution about the Prius's floor mats about two months after the first story from Hood's Web site.** From a company press release: "If properly secured, the All Weather Floor Mat will not interfere with the accelerator pedal. Suggested opportunities to check are after filling the vehicles tank with gasoline, after a carwash or interior cleaning, or before driving the vehicle. Under no circumstances should more than one floor mat ever be used in the driver's seating position: the retaining hooks are designed to accommodate only one floor mat at a time."

But floor mats didn't explain why many of the Priuses took off, including the case of the Houston man who parked his Prius in his driveway but left the car running as he walked toward his house. The Prius surged forward through his garage door, slamming into the back of his Nissan Altima.

"It was a pretty rough accident," says Markus Drunk, a mechanic who worked on the Prius at Autohaus K&H in Houston. "He was lucky that the Altima was parked there because his backyard is not too long, and the neighbors had a family gathering. It would've ran right into all those people, and he was a little shook up over the situation."

Then there's Kevin McGuire, who test-drove a Prius one afternoon last fall — a year after the safety notice — at Dorschel Toyota in Rochester, New York.***

"There was a wait list to buy one, but they happened to have one in the showroom for me to drive," he says. "The saleswoman was very knowledgeable on the vehicle, and I was impressed with the car. Everything seemed to be in order."

The weather was crisp and sunny, and with the saleswoman along for the ride, McGuire drove the Prius away from the city to a hillside road without much traffic. As he recalls the conversation:

"What do you think?" the saleswoman asked.

"I like this feel," McGuire said.

"Well, go ahead and jump on it and see what you think about the acceleration."

McGuire stomped on the gas pedal and the Prius zipped forward, but when he took his foot off the accelerator, the car kept going faster. He turned to the saleswoman.

"This is all well and good, but there's one problem," McGuire told her.

"What?"

"It's not stopping."

"What?!"

"Look it, we're still going."

"Take your foot off the accelerator," she told him.

"I did!"

"Pull over!"

McGuire hesitated to steer the car off the road, because he was slamming on the brake with all his weight, and the Prius wouldn't stop. Smoke poured from the tires, and finally the car shut down and he pulled to the shoulder.

"She was scared and I was scared, too. We just sat there for a couple of minutes and caught our breath, and then she said, 'Okay, start it up,'" McGuire says. "You could hear the engine rev up, and when I put it in drive — boom! The car took off again."

This time, the car died almost immediately and McGuire pulled over again. After starting it a third time, all was okay, and he cautiously drove back to the dealership. The saleswoman asked a technician to look at the Prius.

"Oh, people put in too many floor mats," the technician said. "So the accelerator gets stuck."

McGuire responded, "Wait, this is not my car, this is your car. I haven't done anything. It's not me, there's something wrong with this car."

The Houston Press found just one person currently in litigation with Toyota concerning unintended acceleration.

Art Robinson, the man involved in that crash, wouldn't talk to the Press (saying his lawyer has advised him not to), but a Toyota spokeswoman confirmed the lawsuit, declining to comment further.

Apparently, hours after Robinson purchased his 2005 Prius in Tacoma, Washington, the car began to handle funny, and as he was driving back to the dealership, the car took off. Robinson stomped on the brake and the emergency brake, but the car wouldn't slow down.

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.

"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.'"


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"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."

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.

"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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