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Toyota Prius – Ass Kicker, or Trouble Maker?

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.

 

 

 

  • meep er April 24, 2015, 9:58 pm

    The meep er family has owned a Prius for 8 years, and we have driven an astounding (anti-Mustashian) 140k in that time, mostly due to my long commute, but also because we drive it everywhere, including long-haul trips up and down the West Coast and on camping trips. It’s just an incredibly reliable and versatile car. Nice cargo space, quiet, and easy to drive. Avg of 48 mpg in hilly terrain. We replaced the tires several times, but the brakes only once. One brake job! Other than regular oil and ATF changes, and wipers, we have had to do nothing to it. If and when the battery fails (it’s 2nd generation, and the 2nd gen batteries average 225k after 12 years), we might replace it. Getting 225k out of any car for that price (19k) for 10+ years would be a good value…If you are in the market, now is a good time as gas prices are lower, which means the average Joe or Jane is shopping for huge trucks and SUVs. The best years are 2010-2011, according to Consumer Reports.

    Reply
  • Richard Ramsey July 14, 2015, 10:10 pm

    2014 Prius C. 16 months old, 76,000 miles. I bought this strictly for the economy since I am not reimbursed for my auto or expenses. Routine maintenance has to be performed to keep the reliability factor. I drive this vehicle HARD as a STAT medical courier in Las Vegas. 75 mph on the interstate, etc., into the mountains on my days off, vehicle is not babied. Nothing out of the ordinary for routine care. Front suspension is a little light and needed realignment after taking it off road where I could. Not much clearance to do more than dirt paths. Also had to replace some front suspension parts after driving over a wooden pallet that fell off a truck on the Interstate and I was driving 70 with no way to avoid it. Easy fix, no other problems except a bent tire rim. I am not kind to work vehicles and expected to trade this off every 50,000 miles. Would lose to much in depreciation, and decided to drive the wheels off it, which should be 250-400,000 miles. It’s fairly comfortable, the a/c keeps up with 115 degree Sumer heat. No, it’s not a Ferrari for handling, not a Bentley for posh interior, but the gas I save driving 1000 miles a week I can put in my classic 10 mpg Jeep!! Lol

    Reply
  • Fisherman January 12, 2016, 5:41 pm

    These cars are priceless, I am thinking about getting finding one for my daughter to purchase. I bought a used 2007 for $8k and have driven 24k miles in the past 7 months for work and on trips. I drive about 70+ miles to work, 4 days a week and my wife takes trips out of states frequently. We had our battery reconditioned 2 months ago in the Phoenix area by an engineer at a cost of $400. We noticed the battery depleting daily and figured it was better than waiting for complete failure. We had 2 weak cells. The mpg in our car varies from 38-45 mpg depending on the road and how you use the accelerator peddle.

    Reply
  • Bobbi Fox January 29, 2016, 4:19 pm

    Just wanted to let you know I have one of the first 2004 Prius es to come off the line. It has 118,000 miles on it & shows no sign of slowing. Replaced the 12-volt last year.

    Reply
  • Mikey March 12, 2016, 8:36 pm

    As per the environmental impact subtitle, I found this interesting article recently. The environmental impact can only be properly measured if you take into account the cost of not only producing the battery, but recharging it.

    http://www.citylab.com/weather/2015/06/where-electric-vehicles-actually-cause-more-pollution-than-gas-cars/397136/

    Reply
    • Mr. Money Mustache March 13, 2016, 10:00 am

      That is a great point Mikey, although not applicable to gas-powered hybrid cars like the standard Prius. I think I addressed the grid issue in another article on electric cars.

      In many districts, you can choose to buy wind or solar electricity and displace coal generation. I think everyone should do this, whether they buy an electric car or not.

      But if that option is not available because you live in a coal-only region, your next best bet is just getting a good Prius off of Craigslist. And casting your vote in favor of non-coal power whenever you get a chance, if you care about such things.

      Reply
      • Stache it Away March 13, 2016, 12:18 pm

        So with electric vehicles we have to consider the cradle-to-grave emissions but for gas vehicles we only need to consider the exhaust from the tailpipe? Seems like a flawed study to me. I do agree that with an electric vehicle you still need to consider where your electricity comes from, however there are pollutants produced from the production of gasoline and not just the use which they appear to have neglected in this study.

        I think one of the biggest things that electric vehicles give us is flexibility in energy production. It is much easier to source the grid with alternative energies than it is a moving automobile so I think the benefits of electric autos will just continue to increase going forward (especially if you can convince adjust where your electricity comes from as MMM suggests above).

        Reply
  • AnonymousAZ March 29, 2016, 11:01 am

    I have a 2012 Prius C and it is one of the worst cars I have ever owned. For one thing, it’s had problems since I bought it and the dealership claims no codes are displaying (software is always right, correct?) so these problems cannot be occurring. They dismiss my photos and video and since I’ve had my car in there twice in the last two weeks, my mpg is worse! I don’t have time to deal with taking my car to a mechanic 24/7, especially since the extended warranty doesn’t seem to cover anything and Toyota mechanics apparently are only software experts and have never learned much about actual mechanics.

    Reply
  • Glen June 2, 2016, 6:54 pm

    If you live in California, the warranty for hybrid batteries is 10 years or 150k miles. My Civic hybrid battery pack was replaced at around 120k at no cost to me.

    Reply
  • Kate September 21, 2016, 8:46 pm

    Any recommendations for replacement batteries? My 2007 Honda Civic hybrid just informed me (via Autozone’s free code reader) that the hybrid battery is failing. At 143,000 miles I was expecting this soon. It looks pretty easy to replace and Google reveals a couple companies…Bumblebee Batteries ($2100 and 3-yr warranty but new cells/better quality?), or Falcon Hybrid ($1200 and rebuilt/used cells – 1 yr warranty that are reconditioned).

    One issue to consider is that hybrid batteries like to be driven. The batteries do not like to sit idle. Something to consider if you are trying to drive less/be more mustachian.

    Love the articles! It has taken me a few months but I am (sadly) caught up now.

    Reply
  • Kate September 23, 2016, 10:41 am

    Or! What about a grid charger/discharge to attemp to balance the cells/improve capacity? Any success with a $440 prolong battery reconditioning system or IMAX?

    Reply

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