Successful Battery Replacement Leaves Prius Owner Happy, Teaches LessonsBy John O'Dell December 8, 2008
By John O'Dell, Senior Editor
Heather Knowles has just gone through an experience she shares with only a handful of her fellow hybrid car drivers across the country.
She had to have the battery pack in her gas-electric car - a 2002 Toyota Prius - replaced because it would no longer hold a charge.
Her experience wasn't harrowing, given Toyota's determination to keep its hybrid customers happy by providing levels of service the rest of us can only dream about.
Replacing NiMH battery pack in a first-generation Prius such as the 2002 model pictured should cost under $3,000.
But it does provide some lessons for other hybrid owners and potential hybrid buyers.
How Long Do They Live?
As the number of hybrids on U.S. roads grows, so to do questions about hybrid battery life and replacement costs.
Toyota, whose best-selling Prius has given it a greater number of older hybrids than any other auto maker, is particularly concerned.
Not many of those first generation Priuses, sold from late 1999 through 2003, have experienced battery problems - the company said earlier this year that it has replaced fewer than 300 Prius battery packs, many because the batteries were damaged in accidents, not because they wore out and would no longer hold a charge.
That's not bad, considering Toyota sold about 60,000 of the gen-1 hybrids, and many are well into six figures on the odometer.
Knowles' car had just clocked 174,000 miles - she has a daily commute of more than 100 miles from her home in the high desert east of Los Angeles to her office in Burbank - when the nickel-metal hydride batteries in her Prius stopped functioning properly.
That's a little early - here are Priuses out there still going strong on the original battery packs after more than 200,000 miles.
But, lesson one, hybrid battery life is dependent on many variables including ambient operating temperature, and temperatures in Knowles' part of Southern California can get broiling in the summer and icy in the winter.
Second Opinions Can Help
Lesson two: always double check price estimates.
The dealer quoted the Knowleses a replacement battery price of $2,751, a few hundred dollars below what had been the retail price of replacement batteries for the Prius.
But Toyota had changed the price just a few days before Knowles' car went into the shop and the new price for a first-generation Prius battery pack now was $2,299 -- $2,588 for 2004 and newer Priuses. (To be fair to the dealership, Toyota hadn't done a stellar job of getting the word out and acknowledges that many dealers probably hadn't been informed of the new pricing when Knowles got her quote.
The prospective bill was much higher than just the replacement battery (right), however. The service manager said a new battery management computer might be needed, at a cost of $1,176. And there was $31 for new electrical cables and $720 for labor. With taxes, the estimate came to $5,785.76.
That knocked Knowles for a loop.
She loved the Prius, especially its fuel economy, but she and her husband figured that a six-year-old car with 174,000 miles on the odo and the hybrid's equivalent of a blown engine wasn't worth what the repair would cost.
Knowles said she couldn't afford a new hybrid and resigned herself to buying a new small fuel-efficient car with a conventional engine even though (remember, gas was up around $3.65 a gallon in Southern California at the time) her fuel bills would soar.
She contacted Edmunds.com for information about cars with fuel economy numbers that that might come close to competing with her Prius, and that's when her case came to our attention.
We thought the quote was a little high - we'd just written about Toyota lowering the replacement battery price, for instance - and having had enough experience with dealerships over the years to know better than to hold our breath waiting for answers, we went straight to the source and contacted Toyota Motors Sales USA.
(Note, we haven't identified the dealership because there's no indication it did anything improper. Additionally, the service manager hasn't yet responded to our request for comment.)
Corporate Help Invaluable
At Toyota corporate, spokeswoman Jana Hartline confirmed the $2,299 battery pack replacement price and suggested that it was unlikely the Knowleses would need to replace the battery management computer.
Hartline, manager of Toyota's environmental communications, also said that the company really wanted to keep Prius customers happy and driving hybrids and was willing to work individually with them if battery replacement was an issue.
So we gave Hartline's contact info to Heather Knowles and suggested she get in touch.
Shortly after that, Knowles e-mailed to let us know that she'd talked to Hartline and then been contacted by a Toyota customer relations agent, who was looking into things.
Lesson three: If at all possible (and apparently it is a lot more possible if you drive a hybrid) get corporate headquarters working for you.
Knowles sent Green Car Advisor an e-mail on Oct. 14, reporting that Toyota had called back.
"They said that the master technician at the dealership wanted to look at the car again because now they were thinking it was just the battery and not the computer and the miscellaneous other parts. They asked us to bring it in again today," she wrote, "and said if it is just the battery, it should take approximately a week to get a new one."
The same dealership two weeks earlier had told the Knowleses that it would likely take at least 45 days to get a replacement battery from Toyota.
That, Hartline told us, was likely because it was taking that long during the summer -Toyota's battery supplier was working at capacity and orders were backing up. "But we've caught up now,: she said, "and that's probably why they got it so fast."
"I have to say," Knowles wrote in her Oct. 14 e-mail, "Toyota has been very nice, but the process has been very long and drawn out and I feel like I am stuck in limbo."
We set back a note wishing her the best and asking to be kept posted, and then got busy doing other things and next thing we knew, it was Thanksgiving weekend.
We found ourselves reviewing e-mail files and, noting all the old messages with Knowles' name on them, wondered whether the couple had ended up with anything to be thankful about on the car front.
Turns out they did.
Heather Knowles says that the dealership replaced her Prius' battery pack toward the end of October, charging her the new, lower price of $2,299, plus about $650 in labor. No new computer was needed.
"The whole bill came to just under $3,000," she said.
"We're not sure how exactly they got the battery so quickly after telling us it would take so long, that's never been explained, but we didn't want to look a gift horse in the mouth," so she never made it an issue.
As for the car: "It's been running great since."
Knowles said that Toyota's corporate people were great, too. "They were very apologetic and very willing to go the extra mile to get the situation resolved."
She says she's not angry or feeling ill-served by the dealer, but wishes the whole issue could have been handled there from the start.
"The dealership only seemed to be whipped into shape after corporate started dealing with them. It makes me sad for the people who don't know or don't feel able to call corporate to intercede on their behalf," she said. That's lesson four.
"It also frustrates me that a consumer would have to call corporate to help in the first place. Dealers should be more proactive," she said.
And we can only wish that carmakers, Toyota included, would be so helpful in other situations. But don't get your hopes up.
As Hartline made clear, Toyota really doesn't want any unhappy former Prius owners out there, so the company is willing to work hard to keep them happy and when possible, driving a Prius.
Knowles got an unusually high level of corporate assistance.
But with the world coming down around their ears, perhaps car dealers - and car makers - should take a lesson from the Knowleses' story as well: Customers are happy, and keep coming back, if you treat them like they matter.