Friday, April 9, 2010

For Long, Healthy Prius Life, DIY and Skip Toyota Service

Boston Globe

One of the big questions when the Prius came to the North American market in 2000 was, “What’s going to happen when the batteries wear out?”

Well, today we give you Bill Passman, an electrical engineer from Lexington who bought a first-generation Prius in September of 2000 and now has driven it 170,000 miles.

“My experience has been that the car has held up very well,” he says. “Toyota designed it well, and it was warrantied for 10 years or 100,000 miles. I hit the 100,000 miles first, but up until then Toyota took care of everything.”

Everything wasn’t a lot. Oil changes are less frequent than with gas-only cars. “That’s because the electric motor takes care of the initial acceleration, which is toughest on an engine,” says Passman, who changed his “about every 10,000 miles.”

He had the same experience with brakes. “The regeneration system, which uses the car’s momentum to turn the generator that both slows the Prius and recharges the battery pack, means that light braking causes virtually no wear on the normal brake parts,” he explains. He’s done one brake job so far. Instead of a $600 job at the dealership, he had it done at an independent shop, using Toyota parts and just replacing what was worn. Cost: $150.

We like Passman because he’s like many of us, trying to figure out what’s happening with his vehicle before taking it in for service. We also like his license plate, Revolt, one the registry originally refused to issue. When he did get it, he found both front and rear plates mangled after the 9/11 attacks. “Someone didn’t get the pun and recognize a hybrid,” he says.

When his Prius’s small on-board battery failed, he investigated. “It was like a motorcycle battery that ran a lot of the car’s 12-volt accessories,” he says. “The original battery was discontinued, and Toyota wanted $600 to install the replacement and a $150 adaptor cable.”

Instead, Passman tapped into the extensive online Prius community.

“There are groups specializing in each of the four Prius generations,” he says. “For mine, I found folks who had redesigned the armrests, built backup cameras that worked with rearview mirrors, trailer hitches, and warning-light systems to help one drive more economically.”

Passman took a pass on those but jumped in when he found a fellow who’d adapted a Mazda Miata battery and marketed it with a kit containing cables and adaptor block to correct his problem. “I think it cost me $110, including shipping,” he says.

He also invested in an OBD (on board diagnostics) reader. “I got mine at an auto parts store but recently saw one at Costco for about $50,” he explains. “That gave me the error codes. I then checked them online to make sure it wasn’t something serious that required attention at the dealership.”

Recently, Passman’s engine light came on again. The error code pointed to the accelerator, something alarming given the recent Toyota recalls. However, his vehicle wasn’t included in the recall. “Toyota offered to pay 25 percent of the cost, but I could see a $2,000 repair bill for replacing the entire accelerator pedal assembly,” he says. Instead, he checked the code online and got the advice to clean the assembly. “It cost me $5 for a can of throttle-body cleaner, and that fixed my problem.’’

That fixed one problem, but another engine code was left, this one more ominous. It indicated his main battery pack was failing.

“What happens with my generation Prius is that the gasoline engine runs for three to five minutes on startup,” he says. “After that, when the computer said to switch to electric car battery, there would be a surge and then the gas engine would rev up but shift to neutral.”

Passman found that Toyota wanted $3,000 to replace the battery pack. He also could get genuine Toyota parts online (a Generation I battery pack) for about $1,900. The third option was a company called Re-Involt Technologies in North Carolina, which would replace his battery pack with Gen. II batteries for $1,475, plus shipping and an exchange.

He took this option, with the actual replacement being done by an independent shop in Seekonk. Total cost $2,015. “The new batteries are stronger than the original equipment. I averaged 54 miles [per gallon] on the way home,” he says.

What’s next? “I’m looking forward to another 10 years. The car’s still in great shape.”