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Q&A: Living with a Hybrid Car

By KBB.com Editors on July 10, 2008 5:11 PM
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Whether your interest in hybrids is driven by a desire to spend less on gas or to reduce your impact on the environment, there are more issues to consider before committing to ownership of one of these new-tech wonders. Since the technology is still relatively new, questions about it -- and especially its longevity and reliability -- abound. We've asked some reliable sources, and these are the answers we found for some important questions:

Question: Will a hybrid be significantly more expensive to maintain or repair than a conventional vehicle?

Answer: Our sources say no. Generally speaking, the manufacturers of hybrid vehicles figure that the hybrid components should last "for the life of the vehicle." That's not a hard number, we realize, but there are numerous examples of hybrids with over 200,000 miles on the odometers and quite a few that are over 300,000. We found some indications that certain parts on hybrid cars, such as brakes and engines, may last longer than normal. Brakes experience less wear because the regenerative braking system takes a portion of the braking load, and engines shut off at stoplights. The Toyota Prius has a warm-water recirculation system that keeps the engine warm for about two to three days, depending upon ambient conditions. Therefore, if the vehicle is driven on a daily basis, the engine will never experience a true "cold start," which is very harmful to long-term engine life.

Q: Will I be able to take a hybrid to an independent mechanic or repair facility or will I have to rely on a dealership?

A: There is no real reason why an independent facility couldn't service or repair a hybrid, just as long as the technicians were trained and qualified to do it. Manufacturers tend to make their repair procedures available to independents, so it's up to the individual facility to meet the standard -- but it's that way for any repair.

A major reason to consider either a dealership or independent repair facility may be the matter of whether the vehicle is still under warranty. If so, that may favor going to the dealership. If not, you may consider reputable alternatives.

Q: Are parts for hybrids expected to be expensive or difficult to procure?

A: As more hybrids are on the market the prices of replacement parts are coming down. The big question regards the battery pack, and Honda -- for example -- recently announced a price drop. Some hybrid manufacturers have also noticed that individuals building "do-it-yourself" electric and hybrid vehicles have been purchasing the battery packs -- for electric-powered drag racers, for example. Clearly, the parts are available.

Q: What about the battery pack? What is its useful life and when does it have to be replaced? When or if it requires replacement, what is it likely to cost?

A: As this was written, a current-generation Civic Hybrid battery pack was about $2,200, and the Honda Insight battery pack had just been reduced from slightly over $3,200 to slightly under $2,000. The battery pack for the first-generation Toyota Prius is currently under $3,000 and for the second-generation model it's about $3,200, but those have been coming down and will certainly continue to do so. One thing that will reduce replacement battery pack prices will be increasing levels of remanufacturing but, since there aren't many yet in the population and they tend to be reliable, there aren't a lot of used battery packs to be remanufactured. Fears that battery packs would be a replacement problem have proven unfounded. For example, there are some Toyota Priuses being used for taxi service that have gone 350,000 miles on the original battery packs. Finally, a battery pack doesn't just quit; it gradually deteriorates, so you won't be left stranded in the middle of nowhere.

Q: I have a good feel for the expected reliability of a conventional car, but what about the expected reliability of a hybrid?

A: Many of the components that make a hybrid a hybrid tend to be inherently reliable. For example, with the exception of the bearings a motor-generator has no rubbing parts; if the bearings are in good condition it could theoretically operate for centuries. There is no indication that a hybrid should be any less reliable in the long-term than a conventional vehicle from the same manufacturer.

The typical expectation is that the hybrid components are good for "the life of the vehicle." Obviously, some vehicles will have longer lives than others, depending upon how they're treated. But there seems to be no concern about the hybrid components wearing out before any other parts of the car. And there certainly seems to be no concern that a hybrid vehicle will be any less dependable in the long-term than an equivalent non-hybrid from the same manufacturer.

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