Park Slope Prius Panic

prius article Park Slope Prius PanicSpring has sprung. Cherry blossoms! Illegal grilling on terraces! Family road trips!

But all is not well on the streets of Park Slope, whose residents are known for their deep devotion to eco-friendliness (or eco-fanaticism, depending on your perspective), because their vehicle of choice, the Toyota Prius, harbors the possibility of life-threatening flaws.

The epicenter of Park Slope (depressingly just named the No. 1 neighborhood in New York by statistician-blogger Nate Silver in New York magazine; what does that say about what New York has become?) can be found at 782 Union Street, the entrance of its eponymous and infamous Food Co-op, members of which loiter outside the entrance and accompany shoppers to their cars, helping to load groceries and returning with emptied carts. On a recent afternoon in March, out of 14 car-owning customers leaving the co-op, six owned a Toyota Prius. On that same afternoon, a browse of the blocks running from Berkeley Place to 14th Street between Fourth and Seventh avenues revealed 24 Priuses gleaming in the daylight, the streets under them freshly swept. Once the ultimate cuddly totem of the smug liberal elite, driven by everyone from Leonardo DiCaprio to Larry David, this hybrid-electric car has taken on an ominous aura practically overnight, thanks to media reports of sticky accelerators, faulty brakes and dangerously shift-prone floor mats.

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Curiously, though, as if preempting the detractors who would cackle over the minor misfortune of Pima cotton–wearing yuppies, the anxious denizens of the neighborhood west of Prospect Park are resisting the relinquishment of their cars. No: As when discovering that his child has a behavioral disorder, the Park Slopian simply accepts the possible flaws and hopes they won’t erupt at the wrong time. (Also? They’re upset about the plunging value of their once forward-seeming purchase.)

And so the love affair with this sleek, shuttle-craft-like hatchback has become flavored by the spice of unpredictable danger.

Steps away from the co-op’s loading area on a sunny Saturday, Piper Macleod, a 39-year-old music teacher at the Brooklyn Friends School, was unloading groceries into her red metallic 2006 Prius.

“I had an acceleration issue the first year I had it,” she said, angling a leather cowboy hat to block the sun from her eyes. “I thought it was a problem with the cruise control—I was on a country road and a dump truck was tailgating me, but I couldn’t let him pass.”

Since then, Ms. Macleod had her car checked three times at the Plaza Toyota dealership on Nostrand Avenue in Flatlands—“I feel like I’m not liable if it’s documented,” she said. Liable, that is, if her car were to become a dangerous and unstoppable weapon caused by a faulty brake system. She also pointed out that the car “acts a little glitchy” at higher speeds, especially when “going over bumps.” Still, she is firmly devoted to her car.

“For me, it’s mainly that the value of my car has gone down,” Ms. Macleod said. “I’d get rid of it if I didn’t want it, only I would feel too guilty owning a non-green car. I’m willing to take the risk for the sake of the environment. You know, people take risks of ingesting PCPs just from opening up a can of food!”

‘I JUST PUT IT IN DRIVE’

Awkwardly parallel-parking her red metallic 2010 Prius on Fifth Avenue and Sixth Street on a Friday morning, Karen Kucinski said she hadn’t owned a car since 1990—the same year she moved to Park Slope. Six weeks after the 46-year-old mother broke her 20-year driving hiatus, she and her partner, Robin, received word of the recall in the mail.

“It was very exciting to drive around in a car,” Ms. Kucinski said in a later phone interview, “and a lot of that excitement has waned. It’s still unclear to me if we have an issue or we don’t have an issue. It’s been very disappointing: Buy a car, and six weeks [later] it’s been recalled.”

Ms. Kucinski, who works as an IT technician in a Manhattan law firm, received the official recall notice in early March and immediately drove down to Bay Ridge Toyota to have the software for the car’s braking and acceleration system updated. Since then, she and Robin still use the car but regard it with an degree of apprehension, although they still planned to take a road trip to Pennsylvania over Passover weekend with their 3-year-old son.

“That adds all the more anxiety, if it’s a safety issue,” Kucinski told The Observer. “But we want to keep the car.”

The Slope Car Park Garage, located on 12th Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues, houses more than a hundred cars; a surprisingly modest four of the long-term customers own Priuses, says John Williams, the garage manager. (Then again, maybe it’s not so surprising: Prius owners delight in ostentatiously parking on the street, fitting the small car into challenging spaces, bragging about its turn radius.) At least one has received a recall letter, requiring a checkup at the dealership, and the other owners are deeply concerned, Mr. Williams said, standing by the entrance of his garage one Friday, a metallic blue 2005 Prius resting in the shadows.