Spring 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.
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.
“People are worried,” Mr. Williams said. “Even our attendants are especially careful when driving those cars; they don’t want them to crash. But Toyota people are extremely loyal. The lady that owns that car,” he continued, indicating the blue Prius, “she is worried about it, and it isn’t even the model that is being recalled!”
The lady turned out to be Irma Rutyna, a 65-year-old Slope resident and reception supervisor at the Animal Kind Veterinary Hospital on Seventh Avenue at 11th Street, right around the corner from the garage. Ms. Rutyna, who was wearing a sparkling cross around her neck, said she doesn’t trust the Bay Ridge dealer who gave her car a clean bill of health. “They lie. They say, ‘It’s O.K.,’ but it’s not true. So what can I do? I just put it in drive, and I go!”
Susannah Blair, a 23-year-old Slope resident who used to work in the development department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was using her metallic red 2007 Prius to move out of her home on Union Street last Friday. “My floor mat always slides around, and I am just attentive to that,” she said. Prius owners were advised to remove their mats in 2009, but Ms. Blair has been cavalier. “My dad has been trying to convince me to remove them,” she said.
BUMPS IN THE ROAD
Not far from Ms. Blair’s former apartment, the Hess station at Union Street and Fourth Avenue, with its massive green sign, is one of the few gas stations dotting the perimeter of Park Slope. On a spring Saturday, Ronni Horowitz, a 49-year-old elementary school teacher who lives in the neighborhood, stopped at the station to fill up her metallic blue 2008 Prius. She said she has also been unmoved by the recalls (her two daughters, ages 13 and 18, are uninterested in driving the car), and, aside from verifying online that her car was not on the list, she’s taken no action.
“Statistically speaking, I’m more likely to get hit by lightning,” Ms. Horowitz said, replacing the gas cap. Inside her car, a small, wavy-haired dog wagged its tail ferociously. “I’m a lifelong Toyota owner and that’s not going to change. But I already have 35,000 miles on it. If it had a problem, it would already have happened.”
Mostly, she is annoyed by how good a deal one can get for a new Prius, as opposed to before, when the company had waiting lists to get new models.
“I guess the only thing that upsets me is the car losing value,” she said.
Back to Ms. Kucinski, owner of the 2010 Prius, who in a post–road-trip phone interview mentioned that as she drove through Pennsylvania, it took her car’s brakes a noticeable moment to kick in after cruising over a bump.
“The friends we were visiting have an earlier-model Prius, and they said that it’s simply how the car performs,” Ms. Kucinski told The Observer, sounding not totally convinced. “And it’s what we should expect—I do think it’s a safe vehicle.”
Maybe the Slopers’ coping mechanism is just denial? (How else to explain their cheerful occupancy of a hood that so creepily resembles San Francisco, except with more opticians?) In analyzing the reaction, it might be useful to consider another ubiquitous vehicle in these parts, the Maclaren stroller. Last November, the English company voluntarily recalled one million of its premium-brand buggies after the fingers of 12 children were amputated by the folding mechanisms.
Yet to this day, it’s still the most visible brand of stroller on the streets of the Slope, the numbers of which showing no signs of abating. Perhaps the residents actually feel subconscious aggression toward the very offspring they are ostensibly overprotecting?
Christina Shane, 45, is a freelance clothing designer living in Park Slope who leases a 2009 Prius in a unique mint-green color (actually known as “silver pine mica”), along with her husband, David. The couple, along with their children, Chloe, 9, and Jackson, 11, took the car on a spring-break road trip up to Montreal and back without any issues.
When Prius stories broke, Ms. Shane did check online to see if her model was among those being recalled. Because it is not, she has no concerns about the safety of her car—and her family loves it.
“Actually, I think a lot of the concern comes from media hype,” she said in a recent phone interview. “Compare this with other American cars. The whole thing is like a perfect storm for Toyota, and those car companies were never held up to the same standards as the foreign ones.”
Ms. Shane feels that large American car companies threatened with bankruptcy, like Ford and GM, are pushing for as much media coverage about the Toyota safety issues as possible. She may have a point. Toyota has never suffered through such a large-scale vehicle recall, which by mid-January was at least nine million vehicles worldwide, according to The New York Times. But as recently as last October, Ford’s growing list of recalls had reached more than 16 million, according to a CNN Money report. Surely one American car executive opened a bottle of Champagne upon hearing its Japanese competitor’s woes?
“They were always the less attractive alternative. They’re less fuel-efficient and less well designed. But now the Toyotas are less attractive,” said Ms. Shane sarcastically.
“I mean, when people tell you that you’ll die if you drive one,” she continued, overly emphasizing the word “die” over the sound of her children laughing in the background, “that’s the only issue with the cars.”