Honda Civic Hybrid Batteries Failing Early? Owner Complaints Piling UpBy John O'Dell August 15, 2010
Automaker's Fix May Reduce MPG; California Air Quality Regulators and NHTSA Involved; Honda Says Problem Not Systemic
"Every summer I have IMA battery problems with my '07 Civic Hybrid. (Live ... where summer highs are typically 95-100) Symptom is sudden discharge of IMA battery as indicated by white bars on the dash. (Actually sometimes I see a sudden charging of the battery...goes from 50% to 90% in matter of seconds!) Car can then hardly accelerate w/o assist. Car seldom has more than half a charge." - a recent posting on the Edmunds' CarSpace Honda Civic forum.
By John O'Dell, Senior Editor
(NOTE: Updated 12:05 pm on 8/15/10 to include Honda comments.)
Owners of 2006 and later Honda Civic Hybrids are finding that the batteries that power the cars' Integrated Motor Assist electric drive system aren't always living their expected lifespan and there are concerns that a fix Honda is providing to prolong battery life can reduce the hybrids' fuel economy.
Honda recently mailed letters to more than 100,000 owners of ''06-'08 Civic Hybrids in the U.S. and Canada acknowledging that their cars' batteries could deteriorate and fail prematurely and that the automaker has developed a software fix to correct the problem.
Green Car Advisor has been monitoring the situation and preparing a report as increasing numbers of owners complain about the battery issue on the Edmunds.com CarSpace social network, but the Los Angeles Times broke the story this morning with a report that California air quality regulators quietly met with Honda on the issue last week.
Officials of the powerful California Air Resources Board are concerned that a battery management system software fix Honda has engineered to increase battery life also reduces fuel economy and might increase the cars' tailpipe emissions, potentially violating state clean air standards.
Because the new software has just come out (the letters were mailed July 30) there's apparently no real-world data yet on the impact on fuel economy or emissions.
We called several Honda spokespeople for comment this morning but it's Sunday and we haven't heard back - we'll post it as soon as we do.
A spokeswoman for American Honda Motor Co. said this morning that the company is offering to upgrade battery management software at no charge for owners of 2006, 2007 and 2008 Honda Civic Hybrids to bring them up to the standards used in '09 and later models. The upgrade, said spokeswoman Christina Ra, will ensure that the cars get "maximum overall battery performance and life."
The new software limits the amount of time the electric motor kicks in - prolonging battery life but reducing the amount of assist the Honda IMA electric-drive system provides the car's small four-cylinder gasoline motor.
California air quality regulators are concerned that the new programming can increase fuel consumption and emissions as the gas engine is forced to work harder.
Ra said, however that Honda is confident that the updated cars will not be in violation of California emissions rules and that while fuel economy could be affected in certain instances - she didn't offer specifics - Honda doesn't anticipate "any change to overall fuel economy" because of the software upgrade.
Many of the complaints we've noted are from Civic Hybrid owners living in states with hot summer temperatures - heat does reduce battery performance. And while the nearly 450 postings about Honda IMA problems on CarSpace represents a significant amount of discussion, Honda's sold more than 100,000 of the 2006 through 2008 model year Civic Hybrids.
The automaker does not believe that the number of complaints logged by regulators and by its own customer service people indicates a systemic battery problem with the '06-'08 hybrids, Ra said.
"Everyone is still figuring out how to achieve optimum battery reliability and durability and all batery capacity reduces over time," she said. "This new software is a response to that."
In addition to reprogramming battery management software, Honda in some cases is swapping disgruntled hybrid owners' nickel-metal hydride battery packs batteries for new ones.
A CARB official told the newspaper that Honda has replaced more than 4 percent of all 2006-2008 Honda Civic Hybrid batteries, crossing over the limit at which the state should have been notified.
We previously had checked National Highway Traffic Safety Agency records and could not find a meaningful number of complaints filed with the agency. A NHTSA spokesman told the Times that it it has received no reports of accidents linked to Honda civic battery problems but did say that it has received a number of complaints about the batteries losing power and is talking with Honda about the situation.
Ra said Honda is confident that the battery software update will not create an unsafe operating condition with any car.
Owner previous complaints center on three issues - the inability of the Civic Hybrid's battery pack to maintain a proper charge; a resulting sudden loss of power that could lead to safety problems on high-speed highways; and the loss of fuel economy reported by some who already have had their car's battery management software updated with earlier patches.
And while Honda is now upgrading software for free, some complain that dealers and corporate customer relations people refused to acknowledge in the past that the problem they complained of existed and that many dealers were charging large sums for previous repairs and software updates:
"By the time I got home the IMA and check engine light came back on. Car is charging and running fine. Found 2 places that will repair my IMA battery for anywhere from apx $800 - $1250 which is far better than the $2700 the dealer wants. One will even give a loaner battery." - July 22 posting on CarSpace.
Even the new fix may no longer seen by some formerly loyal Civic Hybrid owners as a good thing.
One California owner wrote this cynical note to other Civic Hybrid owners on CarSpace late last month:
"Lots of luck to you, same problem here, loved the car for the first 2 years (Honda Civic hybrid 06), got the runaround last year with Honda reps, Consumer Affairs, etc, the Honda rep is assuring me that it is "performing as designed" bottom line is that they have a faulty product, thus the software update for the assist battery, that now shuts it down before it gets hot enough to destroy the battery, saving them some money while it lasts long enough for the warranty to run out. Thank goodness, our Ca summer has been mild, reduces the frustration of trying to accelerate!"