By Jim Motavalli, Crain News Service
DETROIT (Nov. 20, 2012) — The oldest Toyota Prius and Honda Insight hybrid cars are now 12 years old, and many have long since topped 100,000 miles.
Although the cars have been breathtakingly dependable, there's a limit to the life of nickel-metal-hydride battery packs, and many hybrid owners are now reaching it. But that's not necessarily a reason to sell or junk the car.
According to Eric Evarts, senior associate autos editor at Consumer Reports, "Most hybrids have been extremely reliable in our survey, and few have needed battery replacements. Even if you're one of the unlucky few, look at it this way: In the most popular hybrid design, from Toyota, there are virtually no wearable parts in the transmission. So if you have to spend $1,800 on a battery after 150,000 miles, you're still ahead of where you would have been in many less-reliable cars that are on their second or third transmission by then."
So owners of popular hybrids who have seen reduced battery performance or warning lights on the vehicle's dashboard have worthwhile alternatives that don't involve sending the car to the junkyard.
The first recourse is getting a new battery at a dealership—an experience that has left some consumers with sticker shock. But it may not be quite as expensive as you think. One Long Island, N.Y., 2005 Prius owner was quoted $4,000 for a new pack, and then learned that he was actually covered by the longer, 150,000-mile warranty that applies to owners in states that follow California emission laws.
Another owner haggled the price down from $5,875 to $2,299 after some negotiation—don't be afraid to bargain. For the record, Toyota now charges an official $3,649 for a new first- or second-generation Prius pack, but a $1,350 "core credit" for your old battery makes that much more reasonable. For the 2006 to 2009 Honda Civic hybrid, expect to pay approximately $2,000 for a replacement pack.
Some of the batteries sold by both auto makers and aftermarket suppliers are remanufactured, which shouldn't be a bad thing if it's done correctly. Ironically, major supplier Mile Hybrid Automotive in Denver—which sells 500 replacement packs a year—offers new Honda Civic packs from a supplier in Hong Kong, while an auto dealer is more likely to provide a remanufactured unit.
Eric Sumpter, owner of Mile Hybrid, said he's seeing hybrids that need new packs as early as 70,000 miles or as late as 200,000 miles. Toyota said even 300,000 or 400,000 miles on one set of batteries is possible, depending on how the vehicle is driven—that's the all-important factor.
Mile Hybrid sells Civic packs for $2,200 and charges $200 labor for installation. "We think our units offer better power handling characteristics," Mr. Sumpter said, "and some owners report better fuel economy, although we don't guarantee that."
For a refurbished Prius pack that fits 2000 to 2003 cars, Mile Hybrid charges $1,400 and $1,500 for the second generation (2004 to 2010). They're usually sent via truck freight to local garages. Some buyers opt to install the packs themselves, though Mr. Sumpter pointed out that there are some safety concerns and shock hazards.
It's possible to find individual battery cells for sale on the Internet, which can seem like a low-cost way of getting back on the road. But experts say that hybrid cells need to be balanced properly with professional equipment. Skipping that step can lead to overcharged cells and a hydrogen fire, which is very dangerous.
Another hybrid-battery supplier is Re-Involt Technologies in Sanford, N.C. According to Cliff Deming, a service writer there, remanufactured first- or second-generation Prius packs are $1,875 with an 18-month unlimited-mileage warranty. Packs for the Honda Civic hybrid and first-generation Insight are $2,595 from Re-Involt, with a three-year warranty.
Yet another alternative is buying a used battery via eBay or other suppliers—with some replacement Prius batteries available in junkyards for less than $600. But, of course, caveat emptor applies: There's no way to know how long batteries sourced that way will last.
There are a lot of hybrid cars on the road now—1.3 million just from the market leader, Toyota. Hybrids have been on American roads since 1999, so it's not surprising that a lot of them are reaching battery-replacement time. It's never going to be cheap, but it doesn't have to break the bank, either.
Jim Motavalli is a contributing editor to shopautoweek.com, which was launched in September 2011 and is operated by Crain's Auto Week magazine, a Detroit-based companion publication of Tire Business. The site bills itself as "an authoritative online resource for anyone researching a new vehicle."