Ruth: My husband started talking about buying a Prius a few months ago.  I figured it was a phase, so I ignored it.

Unfortunately, he kept talking about it.  How it would be an ecological statement.  A reduction of his (shamefully large) carbon footprint.  An atonement.

Time to take a little action.  I’d slip in occasional remarks like, “Oh!  A college professor with a Prius.  That’s … kind of a cliche, isn’t it?”  Or I’d note how, as a Prius driver, he could expect to huddle with other Prius owners at parties and swap stories about gas mileage.  “Won’t that be fun?” I asked.

My husband’s known me a long, long time.  He ignored me.  When The New York Times ran a front-page article on the “statement” of owning a Prius — versus, say, other less-glam, lower-profile hybrids — I couldn’t resist another comment.  The article had compared Prius-owning to wearing those rubber bracelets that declare your daring stance of being against, say, cancer.  “Maybe they’ll be making a Prius bracelet, too,” I said.  “Will you be wearing one?”

Finally, I shut up.  Well, except for the time we visited friends in Virginia who proudly owned a Prius.  They loved it, but said it was such a popular car, they found it hard to find in a parking lot.  I suggested the addition of a “Bush-Cheney” sticker might make it easier to locate in any crowd.

But, anyway.  I really did shut up.  I knew my husband would buy whichever car he wanted and he’d only be more determined to buy a Prius if I kept up my stealth campaign against it.  Besides, I really do care about the environment, even if I am from West Texas.  (My only real objection to the Prius was that it was so small and didn’t feel that safe to me.  Also, on principle, I enjoy giving my husband a hard time.)

So, he bought the damned Prius — bright red and pimped-out with those gadgets men love, like a navigation system and backup camera and God knows what else.  The truth was, I kind of liked the car, even if it was creepily quiet and you couldn’t tell whether it was really on or not.  We took to driving it in town on the weekends since it was easier to park and cheaper than my own gas-guzzling, larger Japanese car.  In a touching display of marital solidarity, I even cut out my constant gibes about it.  My husband had never owned a brand-new car before (long family history there about new cars being bad investments) and it was really quite sweet how proud he was of it.

Until that night, several days ago, we were headed to a party.  We rounded a hill and saw that an SUV had run a stop sign several yards in front of us.  My husband hit the brakes, but we still broadsided the SUV.  Fortunately, no one was hurt and we had slowed the Prius enough that our airbags didn’t even go off.  The SUV was dented — but the brand-new Prius looked like hell, its front end smashed-up and headlights shattered.  As we of the Woodstock generation would say, bummer.  Major bummer.

Very sad, very long story short, the Prius went to a collision service.  The first time it was “fixed,” my husband drove it two blocks and all kinds of gizmos and warning lights went off.  He returned it.  Again, it was “fixed.”  That night, when the headlights came on, one aimed straight ahead and the other at a 90-degree angle; it was great, if you wanted to send a signal to another planet.  Worse, there was an insistent “knocking” sound.  “Can you hear that?” my husband kept asking.  I could.  It wasn’t good.  Priuses were supposed to be completely silent, remember?

So, we took the Prius to a dealership, where it was discovered the knocking sound was some kind of “electronic power steering” problem, if I can quote the dealership rep.  I can quote him, because I’ve been talking to him regularly, along with a cadre of insurance people who assure me that the new ($1,800!) problem can’t even be evaluated for another several days.  So, the Prius sits.

And, since my husband is away on a business trip, I’m the moron dealing with abstruse automotive problems, trying to speak with authority about how this would be a rack-and-pinion problem in a normal car, but it’s different — and far worse — in a sophisticated hybrid vehicle.  I feel like an inadequately coached parrot.

Also far worse is the tragic fact I am once again dealing with an insurance company, talking to a different person every few minutes, reciting our insurance number, our claim number, our wreck saga, and our sad and tortured tale of a hybrid gone wrong and mechanics gone stupid.

Must go.  I’m sure the phone’s about to ring and I’ll have the pleasure of talking to yet another claims adjuster or mechanic who can tell I’m barely capable of understanding how, exactly, a bicycle works.  But I’m saying nothing about the wisdom of buying a Prius in the first place.  My mouth is really shut this time.

(Copyright 2007 by Ruth Pennebaker)

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