Hybrid vehicles require specialized repairs
by Conor Lee
Every morning, Delana and Russ Beaton of Salem have a discussion, and the topic is always the same: Who will drive their 1999 Honda Insight? "We determine who will use it that day based on how many miles we think we'll drive," Delana Beaton says. "It's between the Insight and our Plymouth Grand Voyager."
When Honda introduced the nation's first production hybrid car in 1999, the Beatons were among the first to get one. "We paid the down payment before they even had a photo of what it would look like," Beaton recalls.
Mechanics who complete the Automotive Career Development Center's course on hybrid repair learn everything from electronic theory to how to work on hybrid components such as DC-DC converters and HV battery packs.
The Insight, now discontinued, and other hybrids are proving to be reliable as well as economical. After more than 100,000 miles, the Beatons have had only one notable repair.
"Last year, we noticed we were getting fewer miles per gallon than originally," Beaton says. "One of the battery pieces was aging just like any battery."
The repair was covered by a 10-year warranty. "[Honda] replaced the part and the miles per gallon went right back up."
The most expensive repair associated with hybrids is replacing the high-voltage battery. Emily Sluyter, service manager for highly rated Broadway Toyota in Portland, says a new battery can cost between $3,500 and $4,000. However, batteries often last the life of the vehicle.
Bill Merchant, organizer of the Portland Area HSD Meetup Group, a group devoted to Prius drivers, and owner of 2005 and 2007 models, says drivers can find qualified independent mechanics when their warranties expire. "I go to an independent garage that specializes in hybrids," Merchant says. Manufacturers offer hybrid training only to dealership mechanics. "A lot of people go to the dealerships, but the car's basically a car. You have to be smart, though. Do your homework and make sure they have hybrid-trained technicians."
Bill's preferred shop is Todd's Import Automotive in Lake Oswego, which has an "A" rating on the List. "We've been working on [hybrids] for eight years," says Jim Millar, lead technician. Automotive Service Excellence, a professional certification group, doesn't yet offer hybrid certification for mechanics.
To find an independent hybrid mechanic, start by searching "auto service" on Angie's List. Then, ask them if they have experience with hybrid vehicles.
"We go through the Automotive Career Development Center in Worcester, Mass.," Millar says. "I'm designated a master technician through this program."*
Craig Davis, manager with Auto Adventure, a salvage yard specializing in Japanese imports, says hybrid parts are finding their way into his salvage yard, making repairs more affordable for those who have exhausted their warranty. "A used, high-voltage hybrid battery would cost between $750 and $1,200," Davis says.
But Davis doesn't expect too much business from people like Delana and Russ Beaton. "The electric drivetrains hold up pretty well," Davis says. "From a salvage standpoint, I want them to fail, but they haven't."