Toyota has quietly agreed to let customers continue driving about 1,000 discontinued [Rav4 small SUV] electric vehicles that were a precursor to the popular Prius petrol-electric hybrid, The Associated Press (AP) reported.

The decision reportedly is a victory for a small but devoted band of electric car drivers, who say automakers never gave the cars a chance to succeed in the mass market. Supporters say electric cars reduce the country’s reliance on polluting petrol, whose price has surged in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

“Toyota has been very progressive in responding to consumer demand,” Chelsea Sexton, a member of Plug In America, which argued for keeping the Toyotas on the road, told the news agency, adding: “They didn’t think these vehicles would ever be as popular as they turned out to be. For us there was no question.”

The Associated Press noted that several automakers produced electric vehicles in response to 1990 US air quality regulations requiring that 10% of all new cars sold in California by 2003 produce no tailpipe emissions.

But after persuading judges to whittle away the regulations, automakers that had leased the vehicles to consumers began reclaiming and destroying them, saying it wasn’t feasible to continue servicing vehicles that never caught on with consumers, the report added.

AP said the need to plug in the vehicles every 100 miles (160km) or so warded off many buyers, but dedicated drivers pleaded to keep their electric cars, saying automakers had made no real effort to promote the technology.

The report said they held demonstrations outside Toyota Motor Sales USA dealerships, pleading with the company not to reclaim them when the leases expired.

Toyota Motor Corp. produced about 1,500 of the small SUVs between 1997 to 2003, leasing most of them to companies and government agencies for use as fleet vehicles, according to AP.

About 300 private individuals who leased Rav4s were allowed to continue leasing or to buy them, but Toyota has now agreed to extend leases on the fleet vehicles, some of which have fallen into private hands, company spokeswoman Cindy Knight told the Associated Press.

About 200 other Rav4s were dismantled, recycled and crushed because they were no longer roadworthy, she reportedly added.

Knight also told the news agency that Toyota also pledged to donate any cars returned to the company to state and national parks, among others. Though the company has an option to reclaim the leased vehicles, it does not plan to do so unless customers decide not to extend their leases.