Bobette Riner bought a new Prius last year to shoot the bird at oil companies.
"I felt so smug for a while," she says.
She was lucky to score the car 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 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 in her hometown of Houston, Texas. 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 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, she says, her Prius had accelerated on its own.
She pushed on the brakes but says 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, wondering if her new car had actually 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 while the Big Three failed and failed again to produce efficient vehicles.
The car is the status symbol of the geeky, green, environmentally conscious 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."
Now, another side of the Prius has orbited into view as owners share horror stories on blogs and messageboards. Prius drivers complain that faulty accelerators have caused them to crash their cars through forests, garage doors, and gas stations from Central Florida to Washington state.
Jaded Prius owners say there's no resolution with Toyota, and the company hasn't lost or settled a single lawsuit concerning "unintended acceleration."
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has just two Prius investigations in its database from 2004 and 2005, but those involved the car's cooling system. Toyota responded to the acceleration problem in 2007 by recalling "faulty floor mats" that the company said could cause the gas pedal to stick. 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 I.M., 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."
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 were actually 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 Bush administration killed the project in 2002.
Meanwhile, Toyota was priming the U.S. market for the Prius.
From 2000 to 2008, about 1.3 million hybrids sold in the country, according to numbers from the U.S. Department of Energy, and the Prius accounted for more than half of those sales. Every year except 2006, the Prius 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, 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."
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."
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 recalled the floor mats about two months after the first story from Hood's website. From a company news release: "If properly secured, the All Weather Floor Mat will not interfere with the accelerator pedal. Suggested opportunities to check are after filling the vehicle's 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."
New Times found just one person currently in litigation with Toyota concerning unintended acceleration. Hours after Art 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. Robinson wouldn't comment, saying his lawyer has advised him not to. But he told a Seattle news station: "It happened so fast I didn't have time to be scared then." A Toyota spokeswoman confirmed the lawsuit, declining to comment further.
Lupe Egusquiza of Tustin, California, was waiting in a line of cars in September 2007 to pick up her daughter from school. She says her Prius suddenly took off and crashed into the school's brick wall. Egusquiza reported $14,000 worth of damage to her car.
Stacey Josefowicz of Anthem, Arizona, bought her new Prius in May 2007. A couple of months later, driving down a four-lane highway toward a stoplight, she claims 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 says 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 after 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."
Herbert Kuehn of Battle Creek, Michigan, sped out of control in his Prius in October 2005 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."
Ted 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. In 2002, Toyota paid for James, along with the other 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.
"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.
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. Elizabeth tried the brakes. Then the emergency brake. Nothing.
When Elizabeth glanced down, the speedometer displayed 90 mph and the Prius was rocketing toward 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 was 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 got banged up.
After the crash, Ted James sought to have Toyota pay Elizabeth's $15,000 in medical bills. They also wanted Toyota to examine their wrecked car.
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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."
"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.' "
Like most Prius owners, Elizabeth denies that she was mistaken about where the brake pedal is. At the same time, they're not looking to sue; they say they just want an explanation and a fair deal.
As Ted James puts it: "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."