Charlotte hybrid owners weigh pros and cons of automotive repairs

Before purchasing her Toyota Prius from highly rated Scott Clarks Toyota in Matthews, N.C., Charlotte resident Sharon Frazier worried about one thing: "When I bought it in fall 2002, there weren't that many hybrids around," the Angie's List member says. "My concern was what would happen if I were traveling and had a problem. Who would fix it?"

Nearly a decade and 85,000 miles later, Frazier no longer worries. "I've never had a problem when I was out on the highway, which was my big concern," she says.

Beyond routine maintenance, including regular oil changes at the dealer, Frazier says her only nonwarranty repair involved replacing hoses for about $150. "I paid more upfront [for the car and maintenance plan], but I pay less every time I drive it," she adds, noting that her gas mileage tops 40 mpg.

As hybrid and electric vehicles gain popularity in Charlotte, owners seeking options for service and maintenance need to look no further than their local mechanic for all but the most technical electrical problems, says Tony Molla, spokesman for the nonprofit National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, which tests and certifies automotive service and repair professionals.

"As long as they're certified, [any technician] should be fine for basic maintenance," Molla says. "For things like oil changes, brakes and tires, these vehicles are designed to be worked on by anyone."

However, a 2010 study by Mitchell International, which tracks property and casualty claims and collision repairs for the automotive industry, found collision repairs on popular hybrids cost more an average 6.5 percent or $182 more  than their gas-powered counterparts. The report attributed the findings to higher dealer loyalty and the use of more original equipment manufacturer parts.

Angie's List member Doug Wells of Hickory, N.C. learned how expensive and elusive repairs can be when a crash damaged his 2007 Prius. Because of the vehicle's high resale value, his insurance company opted to pay for body and mechanical repairs and Wells says the tab, which included replacing part of the wiring that integrates with the charging system, cost more than $13,000.

"It's amazing to think about that in relation to the cost of the vehicle," says Wells, who paid about $24,500 for the vehicle.

The damage also required more than a month to fix and multiple trips to highly rated Toyota of Gastonia, a dealership located 45 miles away, but one preferred by Wells' insurance company. Wells, who gave the dealership a grade of D, says the car bounced between the body shop and mechanical departments as technicians tried to diagnose the problems.

"The fact it was a hybrid probably exacerbated the length of time it took," he says. Toyota of Gastonia did not return messages seeking comment.

Jon Brantley, owner and ASE-certified technician of highly rated Select Import in Charlotte, says he services a number of hybrids, including the Honda Civic Hybrid and the Toyota Camry Hybrid.

"We don't see an abundance of them because they're newer and a lot of people think they need to take them to the dealer," Brantley says.

"But you don't have to go to the dealer. You just have to take them somewhere that knows what they're doing and does what's required. Sometimes we send them to the dealer because they have certain machines to program everything that we don't have."

Toyota spokesman Sam Butto says he agrees with that approach. "A local mechanic can perform routine maintenance items," he says.

"However, Toyota recommends any maintenance or repairs to the [hybrid synergy drive, which replaces a traditional transmission] components occur at a Toyota dealership that employs hybrid certified technicians." They receive specialized Toyota training not available outside the dealers, he says.

Presently, ASE doesn't offer a specific certification for hybrid or electric vehicles, but it covers some electric-car safety issues in its standard certification, Molla says, adding that ASE's in the process of developing a maintenance certification for these vehicles that should be available within the next two years as industry standards settle in.

Alan Rothberg of Davidson, who has owned both conventional and hybrid vehicles, stands at a crossroads regarding his next vehicle purchase. He experienced no problems with his 2003 Honda Civic Hybrid, but after he traded it in for a 2006 model, he experienced ongoing trouble with the vehicle's integrated motor assist.

The warranty covered the cost of the repairs at highly rated Honda of Concord, Rothberg says, but it's required numerous return trips to the dealer. "It never has been fixed," he says. "Actually, it's gotten much worse. The IMA system has an eight-year warranty, but they don't seem able to fix it."

Rothberg says he plans to buy a new car soon, but not likely a hybrid. "I may do the arithmetic and see whether it's better to pay a lot less for a car that gets mileage in the 30s versus the high cost of the hybrid premium. I'm sort of on the fence now."


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Hybrids

The main goal of a hybrid vehicle is to increase fuel efficiency, thereby reducing fuel cost to the driver and reducing emissions produced by fuel combustion. Drawbacks of driving or owning a hybrid vehicle include higher upfront vehicle and repair costs, and the potential issue of finding qualified mechanics to service the vehicles’ unique drivetrains.

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