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," she remembers, "but finally after stomping it a few times, I finally did stop without hitting anyone."

The dealer told her that the floor mat probably caught the gas pedal, but the "floor mats were nowhere near the accelerator," she says. "Of course they made excuses, and then they said something about the computer, all jibber-jabber. 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, though, because "I loved the car and still like the car very much."

Elizabeth James was driving on I-70 when her Prius accelerated out of control near Eagle. She crashed through a forest and ended up in a river.
Elizabeth James was driving on I-70 when her Prius accelerated out of control near Eagle. She crashed through a forest and ended up in a river.

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. Houston computer engineer Dan Bryant turned driving his Prius 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, he 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.

Last summer, Bryant teamed up with Houston radio host Michael Garfield, known as "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 Doug Korthof, who lives about twenty miles south of Toyota headquarters in Torrance, California, and was featured in the 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? An electric-car fanatic, Korthof loathes the Prius and pickets Toyota to this day. "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."

Korthof 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 alive nickel-metal hydride batteries, used in some EV1s. 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, he adds, 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."

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.

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