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Celebrities drove other hybrids, too, but the Prius had the leverage of being ugly.
"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, co-founder 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," says Toyota spokesman Kwong. The Prius "helps them to express that."
The do-gooder attitude makes the Prius and its owners an easy target for the global-warming-is-a-myth guy, not to mention Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the former University of Colorado students who created South Park.
A South Park episode titled "Smug Alert!" opens with a character's dad pulling up to a neighbor's house in a brand-new Toyonda Pious, and when the neighbor asks if the car is a hybrid, the dad replies, "I just couldn't sit back and be a part of destroying the Earth anymore." He starts writing fake tickets to SUV owners for "Failure to Care about the Environment," and when the Colorado rednecks get mad at him, he moves his family to San Francisco, where "everyone is motivated and progressive." The people in South Park eventually buy Piouses, causing a thick cloud of "smug" to hang over the town. Too much smug in the atmosphere, one character says, leads to "global laming."
"The Prius is kind of a gimmicky car. Toyota originally designed it for young geeks in Tokyo: gadget-crazy young guys," says Jim Hood, a writer who worked for the Associated Press for fifteen years and covered the automotive industry for part of that time. "Then the crazy Americans fell for it."
Ted James was a believer — not only in the Prius, but in Toyota.
About the time the Prius was released in America, James, a middle-school math teacher in Eagle, 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 Toyota 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. "I thought they were the coolest thing ever," James remembers. He and his wife, Elizabeth, an elementary-school teacher, bought their first Prius three years later.
"I was very proud because we were the first teachers in the parking lot to be sporting a Prius," he says.
On August 10, 2006, Elizabeth James 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. The car wouldn't slow down "no matter how hard I pressed on the brake," she remembers, so she used her left foot to slam down the emergency brake. Nothing.
The brakes spewed blue smoke from the back of the car, and 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 were 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 were banged up and she still hobbles, despite a year's worth of physical therapy. Scar tissue on her intestines requires her to drink MiraLAX for the rest of her life to ease stomach pains.
After the crash, Ted James enlisted the help of a childhood friend, attorney Kent Spangler (who practiced family law at the time and now is a magistrate in Fort Collins), to steer the Jameses through arbitration with Toyota. They wanted Elizabeth's medical bills — about $15,000 — paid and to have the smashed Prius examined for a cause of the wreck. "You'd think Toyota would be interested in how their car functioned in that crash," 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.'"