* Hollywood’s love affair with Prius continues
* But rival offerings loom
LOS ANGELES, Feb 5 (Reuters) - Wall Street, Main Street and Capitol Hill may have growing questions about Toyota Motor Corp 7203.T and its response to a lengthening list of safety concerns.
But in Hollywood -- no stranger to scandal -- the gas-sipping Prius will still roll up to the red carpet.
The politically correct Prius has long been a darling of tree-hugging celebrities like Cameron Diaz, Leonardo DiCaprio, David Duchovny and Rob Reiner. The snub-nosed half-electric, half-gasoline cars have become a fixture at Hollywood galas, which traditionally boast lines of Rolls-Royces and Jaguars.
With Hollywood’s backing, the Prius emerged as an icon of green design commanding an intense fan base of loyalists who helped boost Toyota’s overall image.
But that prestige took a hit on Thursday when U.S. safety regulators opened an investigation into reported problems with the braking system on new Prius models. [ID:nTOE614007]
Entertainment industry figures said reports of problems with the Prius had to be kept in perspective against a record for quality and the car’s contribution in drawing attention to fuel-saving technology.
“We’ve been big boosters of the car and if there are issues, we expect them to be resolved. I trust the people at Toyota,” said actor and environmentalist Ed Begley Jr., best known for a starring role in 1980s TV series “St Elsewhere.”
Global Green USA, which provides hybrids and other alternative-fuel vehicles as limos for the Academy Awards, plans to keep the Prius in its line-up for the March 7 Oscars.
“The Prius is the green vehicle of choice for Hollywood and citizens who care about America and are interested in saving money at the pump,” Matt Petersen, chief executive of Global Green USA, told Reuters.
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Backers note the Prius gets 50 miles per gallon in combined city and highway driving, more than any vehicle on the road.
Begley said his family owns several Priuses, including a 2010 model, the subject of the U.S. safety probe.
“It’s very upsetting and cause for concern. I’ll do everything that Toyota instructs me to do, but they have been known for making quality cars for a long time and while these matters are quite real, it’s an unfortunate blemish in a very, very good record,” he said.
Some say the biggest problem for the Prius is that rivals are rushing to bring forward alternatives. Those include rechargeable electric cars like the Tesla Roadster and the upcoming Chevy Volt, Fisker Karma and Nissan Leaf.
Celebrities spotted behind the wheel of an all-electric Tesla Roadster include George Clooney and Dustin Hoffman.
“The Prius became a status symbol in Hollywood and still is for the most part, but they became a victim of their own success because they created their own competition,” said Stephen Nemeth, the president of Rhino Films and producer of environmental documentaries like “Climate Refugees.”
Nemeth, one of those selected by General Motors [GM.UL] to drive a test version of its hydrogen-powered Equinox, said his associates are being courted by Toyota’s rivals.
“I know a casting director who said she was turning in her Prius on Monday because Ford is offering $5,000 to people who trade in their Prius for their Ford Fusion,” he said.
“It’s a tangible example of another company taking advantage of the situation now.”
Editing by Bernard Orr
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