updated 9/1/2005 10:52:10 AM ET 2005-09-01T14:52:10

With no public fanfare, Toyota has agreed to let customers continue driving about 1,000 discontinued electric RAV4 SUVs.

The automaker's decision is a rare victory for a small but devoted band of electric car drivers, who say automakers never gave the cars a chance to succeed in the mass market.

Environmentalists and national defense experts say alternative-fuel and electric cars reduce the country's reliance on gasoline that pollutes the air and sends American money to foreign oil suppliers.

Electric-car proponents who urged Toyota to keep the vehicles on the road planned to announce the news in a conference call with reporters Thursday. Among them were former CIA director James Woolsey.

"It's an unprecedented sort of negotiation with an automaker," said Chelsea Sexton, a member of Plug in America, which argued for keeping the Toyotas on the road. "Toyota has been very progressive in responding to consumer demand. They didn't think these vehicles would ever be as popular as they turned out to be. For us there was no question."

Several automakers produced electric vehicles in response to 1990 air quality regulations requiring that 10 percent of all new cars sold in California by 2003 produce no tailpipe emissions.

But after persuading judges to whittle away the regulations, automakers that had leased the vehicles to consumers began reclaiming and destroying them, saying it wasn't feasible to continue servicing vehicles that never caught on with consumers.

The need to plug in the vehicles every 100 miles or so warded off many buyers, but dedicated drivers pleaded to keep their electric cars, saying automakers had made no real effort to promote the technology.

They held demonstrations outside Toyota dealerships, pleading with the company not to reclaim them when the leases expired.

Toyota produced about 1,500 of the small SUVs between 1997 to 2003, leasing most of them to companies and government agencies for use as fleet vehicles.

About 300 private individuals who leased electric Rav4s were already allowed to continue leasing or to buy them, but Toyota has now agreed to extend leases on the fleet vehicles, some of which have fallen into private hands, company spokeswoman Cindy Knight said.

About 200 other electric Rav4s were dismantled, recycled and crushed because they were no longer roadworthy, she said.

Toyota also pledged to donate any cars returned to the company to state and national parks, among others.

Though the new policy spares the cars, the batteries will get less and less range as they age, meaning drivers will no longer be able to go up to 120 miles without recharging.

"I've got a co-worker who's driving one and he's down to between 60 and 80 miles between charges," Knight said. "The battery slowly starts deteriorating."

Plug-in cars and alternative fuel cars, like those that run on natural gas, tend to be most popular as fleet vehicles for companies or agencies that can refuel or charge several of them simultaneously at a central location.

Toyota applied regenerative braking — a technology in the Rav4 that allows a vehicle to create its own electricity — in designing its popular Prius, which doesn't need plugging in because it supplements gasoline with electricity generated during braking and coasting.

Interest in the Prius and two Honda models — the Insight and the Civic hybrids — has climbed with soaring gas prices and a new California rule allowing the three models in car pool lanes.

Automakers have spent millions of dollars trying to communicate to consumers that hybrids, unlike electric cars, are not plug-ins. But confusing the message are a handful of tinkerers across the state who have modified hybrid cars so that they can be plugged in, allowing them to travel much longer distances between fill-ups.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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