Are Hybrids More Expensive to Repair?

If you’ve used our RepairPrice Estimator to determine how much it’s going to cost to replace that leaking heater core in your Jetta, then you’re probably already on the phone to anyone who’s ever owed you money.

But if you think auto repair is expensive now, just wait. As automotive technology advances, cars will become more electronic with each new model year. Alternators and starter motors are being replaced with high-voltage hybrid and 100 percent electric vehicles.

Prius: 1 Million and Counting

Since launching the Prius in 1997, Toyota has already sold more than 1 million units worldwide. And with Tesla Motors now shipping its first fully electric Roadsters to customers and GM aggressively pushing for a 2010 launch of the Chevy Volt, it seems the future of automobile electrification is upon us.

These cars will be cleaner and quieter than their combustion counterparts. And because electric drive trains have fewer moving parts, they’ll also have a lower likelihood of breaking down. But sooner or later, that high-tech propulsion will need servicing. And if your car’s out of warranty, the love affair with your hybrid or electric ride may crash headlong into a ditch.

Complicated, Continuous, and Costly

The Prius has a complicated Synergy Drive system consisting of two electric motor/generators—a gasoline engine and a Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) made specifically for the Prius. (Other hybrids have a similar combination.) The Prius also has a special, high-voltage nickel metal hydride (NiMH) battery pack attached to a regenerative braking system. Because these components are limited to a small number of vehicles, parts for them are considerably more expensive to replace than more conventional parts.

“People figure they save a lot of money in gas driving a Prius—and they can. But the savings will be gone if something breaks out of warranty,” says Mike Helm, a technician at Downtown Toyota in Oakland, CA. “Inverter, tranny, battery—they all cost five thousand bucks to replace.”

In addition, the mechanics who work on these advanced electronic drive trains, which operate at more than 300 volts—more voltage than in your house—require special training. This training is most often limited to dealerships, which pass the incremental cost of training onto customers in the form of higher hourly labor rates.

Despite the potentially costly expense of replacing worn components, Toyota stands behind its hybrid cars, offering an 8-year/100,000 mile Hybrid-Related Component warranty. This covers the high-voltage battery, engine control unit, and inverter. And high-reliability rankings are further proof that hybrid-powered Toyotas carry the same dependable and durable reputation as the company's non-hybrid counterparts.

The Cost Will Come Down

Don’t take us for Luddites. We think the development of new technologies is exciting and that cars like the Tesla Roadster and Volt are the foundation for tomorrow’s fuel-cell and solar-powered cars. Just as in the computer world, as demand for a product grows, so does its supply, eventually bringing the cost down to levels that almost everyone can afford.

It doesn’t hurt to be a late adopter. Those who are the first to try new technologies always end up paying the most. So if you’re contemplating the purchase of a hybrid or electric vehicle—especially if it’s almost out of warranty—consider waiting a few years. Fixing the leaky heater core in your Jetta will seem like a bargain in comparison.

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