Electric car drivers protest at Toyota's Torrance headquarters
Lessees complain that closed-end leases are keeping them from buying their vehicles, taken off the market in 2003.
By Scott Martindale
Electric-vehicle owner Howard Stein took off a day of work to protest Toyota Motor Co.'s refusal to sell him the RAV4 EV model that his wife drives.
As Stein stood in front of Toyota's U.S. sales headquarters in Torrance Wednesday morning, he and about a dozen fellow electric-vehicle owners demanded that the company allow leaseholders to buy their RAV4 EVs.
Toyota plans to reclaim 462 RAV4 EVs issued under a closed-end lease, which blocks the lessee from buying the vehicle. Toyota says the vehicles were prototype models leased in bulk to corporate clients such as Southern California Edison through a "fleet-leasing" program, with the intention that they would return to Toyota for a re-evaluation.
But a few ended up in the hands of drivers like Stein, 69, of Anaheim Hills, who had an open-end lease and was able to purchase his, and his wife, Linda Nicholes, who leased a RAV4 EV in 2001 -- a year before consumers could purchase the vehicle outright.
"Read my lips: 'I am not giving up the car,' " said Stein, who plans to fight Toyota for the right to buy the vehicle, which he leased through his optometry business.
Many owners and lessees are passionate about their RAV4 EVs, which Toyota took off the market in 2003, citing declining sales and low consumer interest. The organization DontCrush.com
, which sponsored Wednesday's protest, was formed to advocate environmentally friendly vehicles.
"We're not going to let the electric vehicle be quietly destroyed," said Bud Raymond, 24, of Ladera Heights, who plans to join fellow DontCrush.com
members for more protests at local Toyota dealerships.
In January, Raymond traveled to Sacramento to protest the Ford Motor Co.'s decision not to sell its electric-powered Ranger pickup trucks to drivers with leases. After staging a sit-in at a local Ford dealership, the company agreed to sell the trucks. Raymond purchased his for $1.
Nevertheless, Ford dismantled its electric vehicle program, citing a lack of consumer sales, and said it intended to focus on hybrid gas-electric vehicles and hydrogen-powered cars.
General Motors Co. also experimented with electric-powered vehicles, introducing the Saturn EV1 in 1996. That model was taken off the market in 2004 because it lacked "commercial viability," the company said.
Toyota began producing the RAV4 EV in 1998 to comply with California's now-defunct "zero-emission vehicles" law, which mandated that 5 percent of vehicles sold in the state be emissions-free.
About 1,500 models were sold during the six-year campaign -- not nearly enough to support the continued production of the SUV, Toyota said. The 462 under closed-end leases must be returned, while the rest can be kept by their owners. However, Toyota says it may eventually become too costly to keep maintenance and parts support for the vehicle.
Mike Michels, a spokesman for Toyota, said the cost of replacing a battery on the RAV4 exceeds the value of the vehicle itself, and keeping the model is no longer profitable.
He emphasized that Toyota does not plan to actually crush the vehicles, but will salvage many of the parts and recycle the metal. Critics say the RAV4 was insufficiently marketed to consumers and waiting lists were prohibitively long.
Protester Marvin Campbell, 44, of Culver City said he believed that Toyota did not want to disrupt sales of its gasoline-powered vehicles.
"It's all about self-protection," said Campbell, who drives a 2003 Toyota RAV4 EV.
"It's 19th-century technology, and they're not in the business of changing it."
State Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) has endorsed DontCrush.com
"We have to wonder whether a similar destruction of fuel-cell vehicles is in our future," she said in a statement, referring to an even newer technology still in the research stage.
Sandy Kapteyn, 39, of Pasadena bought her RAV4 model two weeks ago after leasing it. She says she loves the perks that come with driving an electric vehicle: no oil changes, no tune-ups, low maintenance costs, use of freeway carpool lanes, preferred parking and no gasoline bills.
"I'm going to go to the Costco down the street and recharge for free," said Kapteyn as she stood in front of the Toyota facility in Torrance. "Free fuel!"