This is a special bonus follow-up to yesterday’s article on Cash-Efficient Cars.
There seems to be widespread confusion about the value of hybrid cars like the Toyota Prius. Are they worth the extra cost? Are they reliable? Do they explode when they crash or actually have a higher environmental footprint than a Hummer?
In the comments to Monday’s article about cars, I heard the most extreme claim yet: “Prius batteries only last about 7 years, and after that you have to scrap the entire car”.
That pushed me over the edge. It’s time to dispel the many stupid rumors that seem to coagulate around this rather amazing car, so Mustachians can consider it on its merits, rather than on the Foxnewsy hearsay that has polluted the public’s mind
To get the most up-to-date facts, I interviewed Paul Guzyk, one of the owners of Boulder Hybrid Conversions, an independent company which services the Prius. They also convert the cars to full-fledged Electric Vehicles that you can charge in your own garage and then drive up to 40 miles on electricity alone, before the existing gas engine needs to kick in.
That conversions stuff is exciting enough to get its own article in the near future. For now, let’s just destroy the myths:
“The Prius batteries don’t last very long, and when they die, your car is toast”. WRONG.
This myth may have come from the problems that existed with the earlier version of Prius that was sold in the US from 2001-2003. That car had a smaller battery pack with some design flaws that reduced reliability. Some owners of that generation are now having to replace the battery pack.
In 2004, the next generation of Prius was born, with greatly improved reliability. How long does this battery pack last? We don’t even know, because after nine years on the road, very few of them have failed so far. On the short end of the spectrum, Paul told me of one Colorado resident who had his pack fail after only 200,000 miles. On the higher end, I read of a taxi driver in Vancouver who got his first 600,000 km (372,000 miles) out of the first pack, before installing a second one to get to one million clicks on a 2004 Prius. The Colorado resident lives in Denver and works in Evergreen, several thousand feet higher. The long daily climb may be the cause of the shorter service life, since the pack becomes fully depleted each day and left in that condition during the climb, something that doesn’t happen in less extreme use (batteries hate rapid discharge cycles, and they hate being left empty).
“The batteries cost thousands of dollars to replace”. It Depends.
If you take your second-generation Prius to a Toyota dealer and ask for a new battery, you’ll go home about $3000 poorer. If you take it to an independent mechanic who specializes in that type of service, it will be about a grand. The most cost-effective repair comes from buying a lightly-used battery pack from a salvage yard (there are enough of these cars on the road that some get crashed fairly young, providing a great supply of replacement batteries). It takes a mechanic 2-4 hours of labor to do the swap.
A thousand dollars sounds like a lot of money, but when you consider the maintenance that many cars require every 250,000 miles (timing belt, transmission, etc.), it’s actually a pretty routine expense. To offset the cost, the Prius uses a lifelong timing chain, rarely if ever needs brake service because of the magnetic regenerative brake assist, and is an unusually reliable car in most other ways as well. And that’s before you even factor in the fuel savings.
“The car explodes” Nope.
If you really think batteries are explosive, take a cordless drill battery and drop it off of a skyscraper. Now go down to the sidewalk and look at the wreckage. You’ll see some broken plastic and some dented metal. Gasoline, on the other hand, is a troublemaker in crashes. The less of it you’re carrying around, the better!
“They have a larger environmental footprint than a Hummer” No.
A hybrid car uses about the same amount of metal and plastic as a regular car. On top of that, the battery uses a lot of nickel and other mined minerals. You can estimate the environmental impact as proportional to the CO2 produced when making this battery. Toyota has calculated it to be about 9000 pounds.
You produce 9000 pounds of CO2 every time you burn 473 gallons of gas. That’s about three months worth of driving in a Hummer, or a year in a Prius. In other words, the environmental impact of the battery is negligible compared to the fuel savings it provides. On top of that, Toyota recycles more than 90% of the metals in those batteries when they wear out, further reducing the cost.
“So do hybrid cars save money, or not?”
It depends mostly on the amount of driving you do annually. Since this is the Mr. Money Mustache blog, I’m assuming that you’ve learned by now that buying a new car is never a wise financial move. Thus, we can ignore the fact that a 2012 Prius costs $24,000 while a 2012 Honda Fit is only $16,000. You’d need to drive 27,000 miles per year to get that price difference back over five years, which would be effing insane.
But when we look at used pricing, the picture improves. You can pick up an $8000 Prius from 2004 or 2005. This is comparable to a $6000 Scion or Toyota from the same year. The $2000 price difference only requires about 7,000 miles of driving per year to pay for itself in a reasonable time frame, meaning that buying a Prius in this age range is often a good idea.
But don’t tell anyone else – these battery rumors and other unfounded fears are surely some of the things that are driving down the cost of the used Prius to the current bargain levels. Five dollar gasoline will probably exert the opposite effect whenever it arrives, so get ’em while the getting is good.