Longform

Hybrid Prius Drivers May Be in for an Unexpectedly Wild Ride

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 the city'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.

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 of months after Riner bought her Prius, she was driving to a sales meeting. She hated driving in the rain because a car wreck in college had catapulted her through the windshield, and doctors almost had to amputate her leg.

Traffic was congested but moving, and Riner kept the Prius pegged at 60 miles per hour, constantly looking at the console to manage her fuel consumption.

Suddenly, she felt the car hydroplaning out of control. When she glanced at the speedometer, she realized it 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 whether her new car had gone crazy.

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

The car is the status symbol of geeky, green, environmentally conscious do-gooders, not to mention some liberal Hollywood celebrities. 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, gas stations, and stop signs from Arizona to Michigan to New York.

Take Stacey Josefowicz of Anthem, who bought a new Prius in May 2007. A couple of 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 take Lupe Egusquiza of 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.

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Paul Knight
Contact: Paul Knight