Expensive Hybrid Car Battery Replacements Are Unnecessary

Reader Contribution by Jim Motavalli
article image

I’ve heard that hybrid car batteries must be replaced every few years, costing thousands of dollars. Is this true? If so, why would anybody buy a hybrid?

Urban legend holds that buying a hybrid car will eventually subject the owner to the expensive nightmare of replacing the hybrid car battery pack, but urban legend in this case is wrong.

While there are exceptions, hybrid car batteries rarely need replacing. Hybrids now have a 12-year history in the United States, and most of the cars on the road are still on their original packs — even many of the 300,000-mile Ford Escape Hybrids used as taxis in New York and San Francisco. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority says only two of its 182 hybrid taxis have needed new batteries.

Toyota officials report that of the 1.1 million Prii sold in the United States over the past 10 years, only about 500 batteries have been replaced (0.05 percent). The batteries were originally built to last 150,000 miles, but they have exceeded expectations, with many Prii logging more than 250,000 miles on the original battery packs.

Further, the cost of buying replacement packs has fallen, and inexpensive “remanufactured” used batteries are widely available.

Felix Kramer, founder of the plug-in car advocacy group CalCars, owns a Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid but he says he doesn’t spend any time worrying about battery replacement. By the time his Volt’s warranty expires, he says, replacement batteries will cost a fraction of the original price.

But concern about hybrid battery packs going bad is understandable, given that new replacement units cost $3,000 or more. The nickel-metal-hydride pack in the current Prius, for instance, provides 273 volts, has 168 cells and weighs 118 pounds. It lives a busy life supplementing the car’s gasoline engine. Most hybrid packs are warranted for eight years or 100,000 miles, whichever comes first. In California and the 15 states that follow its emissions laws, the warranty is for 10 years or 150,000 miles.

In 2008, Toyota dropped the price on its replacement packs for the second-generation (2004 to 2009 model years) Prius by $686, to $2,229. Rebuilt packs (Toyota cautions it “can be hard to gauge the quality of work done on a refurbished battery”) run about $1,200, and used packs on eBay can be had for $500. David Taylor, president of Re-Involt Technologies, says it has sold more than 800 rebuilt Prius packs since 2008 and claims a less than 1 percent failure rate. Re-Involt offers an 18-month, unlimited-mileage warranty. 

In 2011, Consumer Reports tested the battery pack of a 2002 Prius with 206,000 miles and found “little difference in performance [versus the original 2002 look at the vehicle] when we tested fuel economy and acceleration.” In 2011, Consumer Reports studied data on 36,000 Prii and concluded that the Prius has “outstanding reliability and low ownership costs.”

Some of the worry about hybrid battery replacement stems from confusion between hybrid batteries and starter batteries. The small 12-volt starter battery in cars such as the Civic Hybrid does what the name implies — it starts the car, while the bigger pack assists the gas engine. The Honda starter battery does have a relatively short life — about two to five years. Replacing the starter battery costs about $100, while the 158-volt hybrid pack costs about $2,000 to replace.

Sometimes malfunctioning hybrid batteries are replaced when a less expensive repair would have been recommended by a trained technician. Hybrid cars are mechanically different enough that dealers send their mechanics to school for certification in working on specific hybrids. Owners should ask for these certified mechanics as much as possible.

— Jim Motavalli, Author of High Voltage: The Fast Track to Plug In the Auto Industry 

Photos courtesy Honda (top) and Toyota (bottom)