Prius: Replace, recondition, or junk?
March 17, 2015 6:44 PM   Subscribe

My 2005 Toyota Prius (160K miles) recently had a check engine light. After taking it to a mechanic, it looks like the main battery in the car, the traction battery, has kicked it. Should I replace the car, replace the battery, or pay someone to fix the battery?

Toyota will replace the battery for $4,000, with a 1 year warranty. They'll also give me a laughable $500 for the car as it stands.

My mechanic will buy a replacement battery off of the internet, that supposedly has a flat 3 year warranty. That will cost $2900. We trust this guy reasonably well.

I found a service based in DC, a guy who reconditions Prius batteries - coming to the car, swapping out the blown/busted packs in the battery (24 packs total) and making sure that the car is ready to go. He offers a 1 year warranty for his work, and charges &1750. It should be noted that there's not a whole lot to reinforce that this is an actual business, though the woman I dealt with was fairly trustworthy. She claimed a reconditioned battery can provide up to 75-100K miles.

Has anyone had any experience replacing hybrid car batteries? Aside from this Forbes piece and theseprevious posts, I'm coming up pretty dry. Is battery reconditioning sketchy? Also, yes - out of warranty here.
posted by Vhanudux to Travel & Transportation (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I have an '05 Prius and my mechanic is a hybrid only mechanic who says that they regularly see my year/generation of Prius with 300+K miles on original battery (mostly taxis and hardcore commuters). I live in a temperate climate, so that's a certainly a factor. But, before I sprang for a new battery, I'd get a second opinion unless your mechanic is a hybrid specialist or sees a lot of Priuses.

This generation of Prius is a workhorse. I'd replace the battery. Probably not from Toyota. The other two options would depend on the general condition of the car and how much money I had to devote to the car.
posted by quince at 7:03 PM on March 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

We replaced the battery on our 1st gen (2001) model a couple years ago, and we're about to tick over to 200K miles. Our garage is also hybrid-only, and when we first started talking to them about possible upcoming replacement decisions, they were recommending reconditioned batteries; by the time we actually needed to replace it, they have come down on the no-reconditioned side, because the data doesn't support it being a good deal. But that's for 1st gen; it may be different for later models.

I have to believe there's at least one good, hybrid-only garage in DC or the near VA/MD 'burbs; seek out a second opinion.
posted by rtha at 7:11 PM on March 17, 2015

If you haven't checked the forums already, I would recommend it before deciding on a course of action. If nothing else, you should be able to find someone highly recommended for a second opinion.

I don't do anything without at least looking there first.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:14 PM on March 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Are you an electrical engineer/technician type? Because this isn't a difficult repair, and you may not need to replace the whole battery pack. It's pretty common that a single cell fails, and they're available individually from third parties. A little bit of testing, some vinegar and scrubbing of the bus bars, avoiding the deadly high current, and some dis/re-assembly and you may stand to save a lot of money.
posted by TheNewWazoo at 7:21 PM on March 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

I shared a shop with people that repaired and replaced Prius cars and their batteries. It is not at all a difficult job to replace the dodgy cells and is likely a small percentage of the battery itself. I'd be perfectly comfortable with a batter reconditioner with good reviews. As mentioned, it is a job that anyone with a good understanding of electrical systems and enough knowhow not to get zapped could do.

My friend that runs the Prius place has 2 shelves stacked a foot high, a foot deep and 6 feet long with recovered cells from Prius that were perfectly good (crash damaged cars were the donors). He started keeping them because he was expecting to recondition a lot of batteries, but he has found that he replaces so few cells to get the batteries working perfectly again he is starting to think he needs to offload some of them and recycle them. Reconditioning is a good method - it works, so I'd give it a go. You absolutely don't need to replace the battery.
posted by Brockles at 7:56 PM on March 17, 2015 [5 favorites]

Here is a story with pictures of how a Prius owner avoided a $4,400 repair by just cleaning the bus bars .
posted by Sophont at 8:01 PM on March 17, 2015 [5 favorites]

Best answer: my mechanic is a hybrid only mechanic who says that they regularly see my year/generation of Prius with 300+K miles on original battery

And there's ones out there still cruising around with 450k as well.

160k isn't really a lot of miles for a prius unless it was driven recklessly or in super harsh conditions or something. Mileage on those things is like reverse dog years, because the drivetrain is easy on the brakes, hardy, and they're just generally really well designed and low impact on their components.

I came in here to post what sophont posted, but i personally would do that and feel confident in not killing myself. It's not an activity for a total amateur to attempt, but it's not as dangerous as some might imply.

If i was going to pay someone else, i'd go with options 2 or 3. Doing anything through the dealer on a medium-aged car like this is always a gigantic ripoff, and there's enough of a price umbrella underneath that people have developed good alternate solutions(and made businesses out of them).

Personally, i'd clean and then attempt to rebuild it myself as i said. But i'd probably rather get the rebuilt battery than the random internet one just because it's cheaper. I don't really think it's a penny wise/pound foolish thing. They're just batteries. As long as they're using quality equivalent cells and not totally brandless crap you should be good. And there's likely a wealth of information on what cells work good out there right now on the aforementioned forums, which you can use to ask the rebuilder person exactly what his job entails, and what brand(s) of components he's using.
posted by emptythought at 8:23 PM on March 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Here's a longer explanation from our garage about new vs rebuilt -- what rtha referenced above. There's more info on their website.
posted by gingerbeer at 10:04 PM on March 17, 2015

I clicked through to post the same story that Sophont linked's well done and worth a look, just in case.
posted by richmondparker at 6:24 AM on March 18, 2015

I go to the same garage as rtha & gingerbeer, and I chose to replace the battery on my '02 Prius. I expect it to last me another dozen years or so.
posted by judith at 8:58 AM on March 18, 2015

Response by poster: I ended up taking it to a Hybrid specialist shop (in Ashland, VA), who did diagnose it as what my original shop did - that the battery needed to be completely replaced. They were, at least, $400 cheaper, and suggested other needed repairs, so I do feel better having taking it there. Thanks for the advice!

For future readers, I would recommend finding a hybrid specialist shop when this sort of thing happens. They seem to be a bit rare, but some in-depth googling ought to help you find one.
posted by Vhanudux at 7:01 AM on March 24, 2015

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