Why are so many Priuses being stolen?
If you own a second-generation Toyota Prius (built for the 2004-2009 model years), you might think it's not worth very much, even in an era with sky-high gas prices and used car values. But you would be wrong, especially if you're talking about one component in particular. Thieves are looking for old Priuses in order to steal their catalytic converters, which contain precious metals that command a premium of more than $1,000 at auto parts recycling facilities.
What is a catalytic converter?
Internal combustion engines burn fuel to create power, a process that creates toxic gases and pollutants. These flow from the engine through the exhaust system to the tailpipe, exiting into the atmosphere. A catalytic converter reduces the amount of pollution a vehicle emits, in turn reducing smog and air pollution. Federal law has required automakers to install them on new vehicles for decades.
Why is this component so valuable?
Every catalytic converter contains precious metals including palladium, platinum and rhodium. They convert the carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides produced by the engine into less harmful carbon dioxide and nitrogen. Catalytic converters operate most effectively once warmed to temperatures at several hundred degrees Fahrenheit.
According to the Highway Loss Data Institute, in recent years, the mining of the materials used in catalytic converters has declined. In hybrids and plug-in hybrids, the catalytic converter requires more of these precious metals than is typical because the internal combustion engine doesn't operate as often. In turn, that means the catalytic converter doesn't run as hot. In order for it to be effective in a hybrid or a plug-in hybrid, more of the precious metals that serve as the catalyst material are necessary.
When a catalytic converter reaches the end of its useful life, recyclers can extract the precious metals and sell them. While all catalytic converters are popular targets with thieves, those installed in hybrids and plug-in hybrids are especially valuable because they contain more of the material than the ones in other types of vehicles.
The HLDI reports that the recent scrap price for the catalytic converter used in the 2004-2009 Prius averaged $1,022. They compare that with the catalytic converter from the third-generation (2010-2015) Prius, which fetches $548, or one from a mid-2000s Chevy Impala at $269. Effectively, thieves can make an easy grand in a matter of minutes by stealing the catalytic converter underneath your old Prius.
How can I protect my Prius against catalytic converter theft?
To steal a catalytic converter, thieves must get underneath the vehicle and remove it. Typically, they will use a small, battery-operated saw to cut through the connecting exhaust pipes, divorcing the component from the car in a matter of minutes. As you may have noticed, a Prius does not sit high off of the ground. So thieves must jack one side of the car up to access the converter.
The best way to protect yourself from catalytic converter theft is to park your Prius in a secure location, like a garage. If you must keep your vehicle in a driveway or on the street, you can take action to discourage or prevent a thief from making off with your precious metals.
NerdWallet columnist Phillip Reed recommends adding an anti-theft device designed specifically for use with catalytic converters. An alarm that sounds only when your vehicle is tilted on a jack is another option. Parking in an area where motion-sensitive lighting will illuminate or where security cameras capture what's happening can also make your Prius less appealing to thieves.
Reed also recommends carrying full-coverage auto insurance that will pay for stolen parts. You'll still be responsible for the deductible, but $500 to $1,000 out of your pocket is less than what it will cost to replace your car's catalytic converter and exhaust system.
Who knew someone other than you might desire your old Prius (or at least part of it)? Be mindful of where you park it, or you'll need to spend all of the money you've saved on gas over the years on a new exhaust system.