The lasting legacy of Toyota’s Prius problem will be more green cars

WHAT do Salma Hayek, Prince Charles, Brad Pitt and Donny Osmond all have in common? The answer is that they are among the celebrities to have bought a Toyota Prius. Since it was unveiled in the late Nineties, the car has been the must-have status symbol for celebrities to prove their environmental credentials.

This has, predictably, meant that opinion on the car is divided. Some say that it is the future of motoring. The BBC’s Top Gear called it “hateful lentil-fuelled transport for the insufferably self-righteous”.

Few cars arouse such passions as the Prius, and its name has become iconic. This week’s recall of the Mark 3 version of the car over a braking problem has gained it a lot of attention. So does this mean the end of the road for the car?

Few people know the Prius as well as Tom Pakenham, one of the founders of Green Tomatoes cars, a London-based cab firm that uses a fleet of Priuses. He says that the story has been hyped. “The word ‘recall’ is very dramatic,” he says. “It suggests that they all have to be sent back to the factory.” The reality is that the cars will be fixed by a software update, which will take 30 to 40 minutes.

“It’s more of a tweak,” says Pakenham. The media’s reaction has been “disproportionate” – while his drivers had noticed that the brake can stick for a moment while the car switches between its two braking systems. In all the 250,000 miles that his drivers have travelled in the Mark 3 Prius, “all of them said they were very happy to carry on driving the car”.

He is convinced that the Prius’s fame means the story has gained more column inches than it would have if another car had been involved, but he says that the Prius remains a great piece of modern technology: “Toyota stuck its neck out and developed this low-carbon car when nobody else wanted to get involved in hybrids. This is a car that pushes the envelope and we should be rallying around it.”

Well, maybe. The car is certainly not as good as its most ardent defenders say, and not as bad as its biggest enemies say. The car has become something of a proxy for arguments about green issues in general. Those who are sceptical about global warming tend to have an irrational hatred of the car. Others have argued that the car is not as fuel efficient as its makers claim. True, in American tests it is very fuel efficient. But those tests involve lots of gentle braking at low speeds and the motorway fuel consumption figures are based on a cruising speed of 48 mph. Those who drive faster and whose braking style is not so expert may not see so much benefit, say the critics.

Others have wondered how much CO2 is used in the Prius’s production and shipping, and whether the reduced emissions from the car itself actually counterbalance this, when it is compared to other cars. Some suggest that the Prius is little more than a way for Toyota to boost its green credentials, while making little positive impact on the planet.

Low-carbon motoring
Michael Tyndall, an analyst at Nomura, points out that while the Prius is widely held to be the future of low-carbon motoring, the 1.6 diesel VW?Golf produces fewer emissions. However, he says that there is no way that this will be the end of the Prius, or Toyota. “Toyota is big enough to fix this,” he says. “It’s a question of how long it takes them to make the story go away.”

If we are to move to a lower carbon economy, then hybrids are an essential step. While there might not have been much good news for Toyota this week, the makers of other hybrid cars will no doubt be gearing up to target worried Prius drivers. Lentil-fuelled transport might have just got a serious boost.

Some have questioned the Prius’ environmental credentials, claiming that the low CO2 in tests can’t be replicated on the motorway