REVENGE OF THE NERDS
How the $10,000 Prius hybrid battery came down to the cost of a major tune-up

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How the $10,000 Prius hybrid battery came down to the price of a tune up

LA Car's Toyota Prius when it was brand new in November of 2003 (Nakano)



By Roy Nakano

$10,000.

That’s the price the pundits were saying it would cost to replace the hybrid batteries when the second generation Toyota Prius splashed onto the scene in a big way. Along with all the accolades, the technology was accompanied by fear and loathing—fear of the unknown and loathing over all the attention it was getting. Fast forward ten years, and hybrid battery repair can be now had for the cost of a major tune-up. How did it get from “$10,000″ to under $1000? This is the story.

The New Kid in Town

When the second-generation Toyota Prius arrived back in the fall of 2003, it was met with a reception not unlike that of a stranger in a small town. After all, the Prius looked and operated unlike any of the popular vehicles of the time. Outlandishly, the EPA claimed that it was capable of 51 miles per gallon on the highway and 60 miles per gallon around town. Lots of people flocked to the car with open arms, and it collected a number of car-of-the-year awards along the way.

However, a vocal number of skeptics weighed in heavily. Among the charges: The car will have poor resale value; the EPA ratings were artificially skewed in favor of hybrids; emergency workers risk danger when cutting through doors with high-voltage wires; the hybrid batteries caused more damage to the environment than non-hybrid vehicles; the Hummer created a smaller environmental footprint; and the topper—the hybrid batteries in the Prius would cost $10,000 to replace.

Hummer H2 and Toyota Prius

Hummer H2 and Toyota Prius (Nakano)

Myth Busting

Toyota responded with a press release pointing out that the hybrid wires run through the floor hump in the middle of the car and not the doors, that the hybrid batteries are 100 percent recyclable, and that, to date, very few Priuses have required hybrid battery replacement – despite being on the road since 2000 (starting with the first-generation Prius).

The Daily Mail, originators of an article charging that the making of hybrid batteries irreparably harmed the landscape, later retracted the article. The photograph that ran with the article was taken several decades ago, and the nickel mining company has since been coveted by the Canadian government for transforming the land into an eco-friendly environment.

The Hummer comparison originated from a report by CWN, comparing the total energy used in developing and manufacturing a vehicle, as well as the energy used during the life of the vehicle’s operation. CWN raised some eyebrows when it concluded that the total life cycle energy used for a Prius was greater than that of a Hummer. The report has since been discredited by both the automotive press and the environmental experts. Chief among the criticisms: CNW assumed that the lifespan of the Prius is just over 100,000 miles. In response, Priuschat.com started a 100,000 mile club. And in the transportation community, the Prius has become the dominant taxi in America, with several having gone over 300,000 miles.

The critics of the EPA ratings fared better. In 2008, the Environmental Protection Agency revised its testing procedures to better reflect real-world driving conditions. But the EPA ratings of all vehicles were impacted, and the Agency still considers the Prius the most fuel-efficient car sold in America without an electric plug.

So, 14 years since the original Prius went on sale in the USA, and 11 years since the second-generation Prius reached our shores, the car has won over all but its most die-hard skeptics. But what about those “$10,000″ hybrid batteries?

Hybrid Battery Repair makes a house call to LA Car (Nakano)

Hybrid Battery Repair makes a house call to LA Car (Nakano)

Birth of a Cottage Industry

That $10,000 figure for the hybrid batteries was part guesstimate and part conjecture, based on the newness of the technology at the time. Whether anyone actually paid that much money for replacement batteries is a subject for urban legend investigators. We can say that Toyota today will charge you approximately $2500 for a brand new hybrid battery pack, and about $500 for labor. In the real world, however, you can get replacement hybrid batteries for a small fraction of that price.

To understand why, you have to know that a disproportionately high number of nerds bought the Prius when it first came out. These were tech-savvy people hell-bent on learning everything about the car—how to make it go farther on a tank of gas, how to stiffen its chassis to corner better, and how to get the multi-function display to accept satellite radio, to name just a few. No part of the car was left unturned. You can even find step-by-step instructions online to dismantle the hybrid battery pack and replace it with a new pack.

These tech-savvy nerds continue to congregate on Priuschat.com, and they have made it a life mission to keep this car alive. One significant outcome of this mission is the emergence of a cottage industry dedicated to bringing down the cost of replacement hybrid batteries.

Hybrid Mortality

For this Prius owner, hybrid battery mortality arrived at around 185,000 miles. While traversing upward on the notoriously grueling Grapevine, the dashboard lights up like a Christmas tree. Contacting the nearest Toyota dealer, our call is connected to the automotive equivalent of an advise nurse. “If the lights are not flashing, you should be able to safely drive to the dealer,” we are assured.

At the dealership, the diagnosis arrives: The hybrid batteries are in need of replacement—and installation of a new hybrid battery pack is $3,000 (parts and labor). $3,000 is certainly better than $10,000, but the thought of putting a brand new hybrid battery pack in a 10 year Prius didn’t make sense unless we planned to keep the car another 10 years. While the hybrid battery pack in the Prius is in need of replacement, it’s not dead yet. So we pack up the Prius and head homeward. There’s still enough life in the batteries to get us back to the San Gabriel Valley.

Replacing the hybrid battery pack in the Prius

Marcos Contreras of Hybrid Battery Repair replaces the battery pack in the Prius (Nakano)

Hybrid Battery Repair

Throughout the country, there are stores that now sell and install used, replacement hybrid batteries. As mentioned, you can even get step-by-step instructions online describing how to replace the hybrid batteries on your own (non-techies, don’t try this at home).

In North Hollywood, Joe Kashefi set up Hybrid Battery Repair (hybridbatteryrepair.net) to serve the Greater Los Angeles community. Joe’s introduction to the Prius came during his occupation of buying and selling cars. A 2001 Toyota Prius with its hybrid lights flickering on the dashboard came upon his possession. Trained in electrical engineering, Joe figured out how to repair the hybrid batteries. With hundreds of thousands of Prii already on California roads, Joe realized that these cars sooner or later will need hybrid battery repair—and that he can do it for less than what the dealer charges.

There was one other feature he could offer that the dealer’s didn’t: Dr. Hybrid Battery Repair could make house calls. To this end, Joe hired trained technicians to replace hybrid battery packs at customer’s homes. From the first-generation Prius, servicing expanded out to the second-generation Prius. In addition to hybrid battery replacement, the company expanded out to include the usual oil change and brake service, to hybrid inverter replacement, transmission replacement, and even engine replacement.

For the second-generation (2004-2009) Prius, HBR offers two options: Service 1 repairs the battery pack (replacing bad cells), Comes with a 90-day/3,000-mile warranty, and costs approximately $800. Service 2 comes with a 12-month/12,000-mile warranty (extended warranty available), involves replacing all of the cells with low millage cells, and costs approximately $1400 (price subject to change).

We went with HBR’s $1400 option, and watched as HBR’s Marcos Contreras removed the back seat, removed the floor panels, removed the old hybrid battery pack, install the “new” battery pack, put the panels and seats back in, and tested the car in less than one hour. It was obvious that this was not Marcos’ first time at hybrid battery replacement. “I’ve done about 80,” said Marcos, who works on other Toyota and Lexus products as well as the Nissan GT-R when he’s not working on hybrid battery replacement for the Prius.

LA Car's Project Prius car at the Poshest gas station in Los Angeles

LA Car's Prius car at the Poshest gas station in Los Angeles (Nakano)

Life After the Transplant

It’s been two months since the Prius had its transplant, and there’s no sign that the car ever suffered a heart attack. Transitions from full electric, to gas-electric hybrid, and back to full electric feel as normal as before. Acceleration seems as good as the car was new, which is to say the Prius is its old, unsporty self. Amazingly, the excellent gas mileage has only improved since it was brand new, if ever so slightly.

Now we don’t think getting used batteries is the way to go for everyone, even if the replacement cells have less mileage. For those of you that plan on keeping your ten-year Prius for another ten years or more, you should definitely consider going with a new battery pack (yes, there are people who have every intention of keeping their Prius forever). On the other hand, if you don’t plan on keeping your car that long, the used option is certainly worth considering.

It was, in fact, Toyota that suggested owners don’t neccessarily need to replace the entire hybrid battery pack with a new unit. Shortly after the second-generation Prius came to market, Toyota issued a news release stating that the car would become so plentiful that owners could opt to replace bad hybrid cells with low-mileage used cells from the salvage yard. Toyota’s prediction has come true.

Revenge of the Nerds

With hybrid battery repair now available for the cost of a major tune-up, the last of the great hybrid myths has been laid to rest. There remains no reason to fear the technology of the Prius. In California, consumers reached that conclusion early on, as sales of the Prius have eclipsed every other car in the state.

And what about the cost-effectiveness argument? With the steady increase in gasoline prices over the years, that one was up-ended. For the second year in a row, Consumer Reports has ranked the Prius as the best-value in cars, based on performance, reliability, and five-year ownership costs. Said Rik Paul, Consumer Reports Automotive Editor, “Though it’s not particularly cheap to buy, the Prius’ depreciation is so low that it costs less to own over the first five years than its initial MSRP. We call that a bargain.”

The revenge of the nerds has come full circle.

VITAL STATISTICS

Hybrid Battery Repair
5523 Tujunga Boulevard
North Hollywood, CA 91601
818 495 5235
hybridbatteryrepair.net

Hybrid battery repair for the second-generation Toyota Prius (2004-2009)

Service 1 : Repair of individual cells in the hybrid battery pack (90 day, 3000 mile warranty). $795

Service 2: Replacement of all cells with low mileage cells (12 month, 12,000 mile warranty). $1395 (price subject to change). Extended warranty available.

Remote Installation available.

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How the $10,000 Prius hybrid battery came down to the cost of a major tune-up

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