"What do you think?" the saleswoman asked.

"I like this feel," McGuire said.

"Well, go ahead and jump on it and see what you think about the acceleration."

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.

McGuire stomped on the gas pedal and the Prius zipped forward, but when he took his foot off the accelerator, the car kept going faster. He turned to the saleswoman.

"This is all well and good, but there's one problem," McGuire told her.


"It's not stopping."


"Look, we're still going."

"Take your foot off the accelerator," she told him.

"I did!"

"Pull over!"

McGuire hesitated to steer the car off the road, because he was slamming on the brake with all his weight and the Prius wouldn't stop. Smoke poured from the tires, and finally the car shut down and he pulled to the shoulder.

"She was scared and I was scared, too," McGuire remembers. "We just sat there for a couple of minutes and caught our breath, and then she said, 'Okay, start it up.' You could hear the engine rev up, and when I put it in drive — boom! The car took off again."

This time, the car died almost immediately and McGuire pulled over again. After starting it a third time, all was okay, and he cautiously drove back to the dealership. The saleswoman asked a technician to look at the Prius.

"Oh, people put in too many floor mats," the technician said, "so the accelerator gets stuck."

McGuire responded, "Wait, this is not my car, this is your car. I haven't done anything. It's not me. There's something wrong with this car."

Hours after Art Robinson purchased his 2005 Prius in Tacoma, the car began to handle funny. 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.

"It happened so fast I didn't have time to be scared then," Robinson told a Seattle news station.

Robinson has filed a suit against Toyota, the only pending case that concerns "unintended acceleration," according to Toyota.

Despite Elizabeth James's injuries, the couple never pursued a lawsuit against Toyota. "I'm not out to get Toyota; we owned three Toyota vehicles at one time, and we still have a 2000 Sienna and a 2006 Corolla that we'll drive until they die because they're good cars," Ted James says. "The fact that she could crash at 90 miles an hour, well, she'll say, 'First the Prius tried to kill me, and then it saved my life.'"

It doesn't take much of a pitch to sell a Prius, says Johnny "J-Mac" McFolling, a salesman at Houston's Mike Calvert Toyota.

McFolling wouldn't drive a Prius, he says, because he's a big man and everyone in his family is big, too, but he loved the car when they all sold at "sticker price or higher."

"You can tell a Prius owner — not by looking at them, but as soon as they start talking," McFolling says. "You don't have to sell a Prius; they're already sold when someone comes through that door."

Those buyers haven't been around much in the last six months, and McFolling says Prius sales have dropped 90 percent since summer while Toyota truck sales have increased. The dealership was selling 25 Priuses a month and could've moved more if Toyota had delivered them, but those days are gone.

Mike Calvert sold Riner her Prius, but after the technician told her the car took off because she was low on gas, she wanted nothing to do with it.

The dealer offered about $12,000 less than what she'd paid for the car, explaining he couldn't sell a Prius to save his life.

"He said, 'The market is soft for Priuses because of gas prices,'" Riner says.

The other owners of runaway Priuses have fared differently.

Sherman loves her Prius and is keeping it until it takes off again on its own.

After his wild test drive, McGuire walked away from the Prius but was determined to buy Toyota. He got a Camry that rattles more than any American car he's owned, and he says he won't buy Toyota again.

The Jameses kept their mangled Prius for as long as possible, hoping Toyota would take it to a laboratory for examination, but when their insurance company pressured them, they let it go. Ted James bought a new Volkswagen Jetta six-speed, so if it goes wild, "all you have to do is push in the clutch."

The Prius that Riner bought brand-new sat in her garage for a while because she hoped Toyota would change its mind about its offer. She just recently set an arbitration date with the company, and when she had the option of meeting at a dealership or fighting the case through the mail, she chose not to meet.

Unless she eats the $12,000, she's stuck with a car she's afraid to drive.

"There's some liberal embarrassment here," Riner says. "I hear all the time, 'This is the first, this is the best, this will save the world.' But what are we getting guilted into?"

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