*     *     *

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.”

Bobette Riner had her Prius for a couple of 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
Bobette Riner had her Prius for a couple of 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 thinks the Prius helped kill the electric car
Jennie Warren
Doug Korthof thinks the Prius helped kill the electric car

An odd thing happened, however, on a trip she and her husband had taken to the family’s North Carolina home. Sherman 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, 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. But her Prius kept going.

“It was very scary, but finally, after stomping it a few times, I 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.

Gas mileage is another big draw of the Prius, and “hypermilers” take that to the extreme. Dan Bryant, a Houston computer engineer, 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 such as 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 [per month], $2 a gallon or $5 a gallon is basically the difference between eating out a couple of nights,” Bryant says. “The biggest thing about it was that we didn’t really notice it.”

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Such numbers don’t sway Doug 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 Who Killed the Electric Car?

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 a 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 who drives a Prius can see their energy usage right on the screen, so people drive a little more conscious.”

*     *     *

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 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 company headquarters 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.

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