Image: Mike Swenson
John Brecher  /  msnbc.com
Engineer Mike Swenson of Auburn, Wash., still likes his Prius, despite Toyota's recall.
Alison
By Allison Linn Senior writer
msnbc.com
updated 2/12/2010 7:44:19 AM ET 2010-02-12T12:44:19

So it occasionally has a problem braking. And yeah, maybe there’s an acceleration issue with some, too.

Nobody’s perfect, right?

For many Prius owners, the recent recalls involving the iconic hybrid vehicles have raised some concerns — but not enough to make them fall out of love with the quirky-looking, gas-sipping car.

Hundreds of Prius owners wrote to msnbc.com this week, and most said they were staying loyal to their beloved hybrid despite Toyota’s recent recalls for brake and acceleration problems.

Still, some said their faith in the car had been tested by the growing number of safety issues that Toyota has acknowledged involving the Prius and other vehicles in recent weeks.

Neither response comes as a surprise to David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. Prius owners tend to be devoted to the brand, he said, but there is one rule to remember about vehicle owners: Safety concerns trump all else.

“Prius has had very good loyalty, yeah, but this is the kind of thing that can literally destroy that loyalty,” Cole said.

'The finest automobile'
Robert Northerner is among the faithful. The 60-year-old high school teacher began noticing occasional problems with his brakes about two weeks after he bought his 2009 Prius. He took it to the dealer and was told the brakes were “adequate.”

That didn’t completely assuage his concerns, so Northerner learned to drive more cautiously, staying further away from other cars to make sure he had enough room to brake. Yet he has remained a happy and loyal customer and has even convinced four other people to buy a Prius, he said.

“It is without a doubt and unquestionably the finest automobile I have ever owned,” said Northerner, who previously drove a Mercury Grand Marquis and also has a Ford F-150 pickup truck.

Northerner appreciates the great gas mileage and said the car feels roomy inside and even handles well in the extreme cold and snowy conditions around Mehoopany, Pa., the small town where he lives.

“If I had to do it all over again and I could buy one car …  I would run right out and buy another Prius, brakes or no brakes,” Northerner said.

Floor mats and brakes
Toyota has included Priuses made between 2004 and 2009 in a massive recall involving floor mats that could "entrap" the gas pedal and cause unintended acceleration.

Separately, the carmaker announced this week that it is recalling approximately 2010 Prius models to address occasional braking problems. Msnbc.com has reported that problems with Prius braking systems may extend to older vehicles as well, citing complaints to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration about earlier model years.

Many Prius owners said the problems that prompted the recalls simply aren’t worrisome enough to counterbalance what has otherwise been a very reliable car.

Mike Swenson, 57, bought the 2007 Prius in late 2006 mostly to save on gas, and the engineer was pleasantly surprised to find that the car exceeded his expectations both in terms of performance and gas mileage.

His car was involved in the floor mat recall, and he said the brakes have occasionally felt soft. But he would purchase another Prius.

Toyota recall timeline

“Because the performance of the car has exceeded my expectation, it probably makes me a little bit more tolerant of some of the problems,” he said.

Still, Swenson, who lives in Federal Way, Wash., said he does think that Toyota’s reputation has been tarnished by the way the company has handled the recalls. And he said he would consider switching to a U.S. carmaker for his next vehicle — if he could find an equivalent, fuel-efficient model.

‘Just a fun car’
Even some who have experienced brake failure say they are staying loyal to the car.

Wayne Knighton, 71, had only recently purchased his 2010 Prius last fall when the brakes appeared to momentarily fail after he drove over a manhole cover.

Knighton was frightened by the incident, but he said news that Toyota will be recalling and fixing the vehicles has put his worries to rest.

He loves how little gas the vehicle requires and has been impressed by how fast the car accelerates even in the mountains around Salt Lake City, where he lives.

“The last time I felt so good about a car was when I bought the brand new Volkswagen Bug when it came out,” Knighton. “It was just a fun car, and this reminds me of that.”

Cathy Hill, 47, knows well the effect a Prius can have on people. After she bought the hybrid in 2007, the environmental lawyer recalled how people started approaching her at gas stations to ask about the car.

Her 17-year-old son and his friends thought the car was cool, and the teenager wanted to drive it whenever he could. She said she enjoyed driving the Prius even though she doesn’t really like cars.

But Hill said the recent spate of recalls and Toyota’s slow response to the problems have prompted a change of heart. She no longer takes the car on longer trips and has barred her son from using it because she’s worried he could be injured.

“I’m very committed to the environmental attributes that a hybrid provides you with, but I’m not confident in the safety, and that’s a deal breaker with me,” said Hill, who lives outside of Albany, N.Y.

She’s thinking of trading the Prius in sooner than she had planned and is looking at other environmentally friendly vehicles instead, such as the forthcoming Chevy Volt or Volkswagen’s "clean diesel" models.

“I wouldn’t buy a Toyota,” she said. “I feel like the company is not fully trustworthy.”

The fact that there are now many other environmentally friendly vehicles coming to market could make people more likely to give up on the Prius following this incident, said Cole, of the Center for Automotive Research.

First-mover advantage
Still, branding expert Rob Frankel said Toyota is still enjoying first-mover advantage with that Prius, which was one of the earliest hybrid vehicles on the road and quickly became the ultimate status symbol for environmental friendliness and fuel efficiency.

Toyota recall timeline

Celebrities ranging from Leonardo DiCaprio to Larry David have embraced the Prius, image-conscious companies have rushed to add them to their corporate fleets and everyday drivers have created Web fan clubs and online forums.

Although Frankel thinks Toyota badly bungled its handling of the recalls, he expects many will stay loyal to the Prius brand. He said that’s largely because serious crashes appear to be rare.

Andy Folk replaced his Ford Taurus with a Prius in 2007, when gas prices were starting to spike in the Chicago area where he lives.

Since then, the IT consultant has put 82,000 miles on the car, and even convinced his mother and cousin to buy Priuses.

Folk, 27, said he has occasionally experienced the feeling that the brakes stop working momentarily, such as when he passes over a manhole or a crumbled part of the road. To compensate, he’s learned to slow down and brake earlier than with other vehicles, and he told his mom to do the same thing when she bought her car. But, he said, any new car takes some getting used to.

“To me it’s honestly not really that big of a deal,” he said.

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