"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, highly acclaimed Fusion hybrid. "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.' "

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.

"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, cofounder 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."

Elizabeth James "thought she was going to die" when her Prius crashed.
Elizabeth James
Elizabeth James "thought she was going to die" when her Prius crashed.

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 Prius is kind of a gimmicky car," says Jim Hood, a writer who worked for the Associated Press for 15 years and covered the automotive industry for part of that time. "Toyota originally designed it for young geeks in Tokyo: gadget-crazy young guys. Then the crazy Americans fell for it."

Now some of those owners say the cute, green car they once loved is flawed.

Barbara Sherman, a 69-year-old retiree, bought a Prius just after Christmas in 2007 for her and her husband to drive around their retirement community of Winter Haven, near Orlando.

"They were a little more [expensive] 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 to 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."

Still, she never thought about getting rid of the Prius, because "I loved the car and still like the car very much."

Many auto reviewers and most drivers 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.

But some say complaints about unintended acceleration have become common. One of the first places to publish them was the website 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 AP writer, who now owns the website. "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."

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