Prius Keeps Car Dealers -- but Not Repairmen -- Busy

Times Staff Writer

Gus Heredia feels a kinship with the lonely, sad-faced repairman in the old Maytag ads.

Heredia, 54, is a Toyota Prius technician at North County Toyota in Anaheim. As the car that started the gasoline-electric hybrid groundswell approaches its fifth anniversary in the United States, he finds customers with Prius problems few and far between.

“We get an average of about 100 cars a day through the service department,” Heredia said. “Maybe three or four are Priuses, and they’re usually just in for an oil change. I’d go broke if the Prius was all I worked on.”

Toyota Motor Corp. began taking orders in the U.S. in June 2000 for its fuel-sipping Prius hybrid passenger car, which arrived at dealers the next month. Although Honda Motor Co.'s two-seater Insight was the first hybrid here, it was the Prius that became a hit that caught the auto industry by surprise.


Toyota has sold 163,000 Priuses in the United States, and it has doubled production this year to keep up with demand. The company expects to sell 110,000 Priuses this year, up from 53,991 last year.

There are other hybrids on the market: Honda’s Insight as well as gas-electric versions of its Civic and Accord, Toyota’s Lexus RX 400h luxury sport utility vehicle and Ford Motor Co.'s Escape compact SUV. At least nine more hybrids are expected in the U.S. by 2008 from Toyota, Ford, Nissan Motor Co. and General Motors Corp.

The Prius continues to be the top seller and one of the most technologically advanced and complex passenger vehicles in the market today. It’s also one of the most reliable.

For three of the last five years, the Prius has been rated top among compact cars in J.D. Power & Associates’ closely watched initial-quality study.


“It’s been a case of diligent hard work and conscientious development paying off,” said Dennis Simanaitis, engineering editor at Road & Track magazine.

Hybrid vehicles use two power sources: an internal-combustion engine and an electric motor. Neither technology is particularly complex -- gasoline engines have been around for more than a century, and electric motors are even older.

The genius lies in a hybrid’s computer programming, which determines when the vehicle will run on electricity and when and how it will shift to gasoline mode, and in the design of the electrical controls that enable it all to happen seamlessly. Reliability is made, or destroyed, there and in the automatic transmissions that link the two mechanical systems.

“And the nice thing about electronic controls ... is that they’re easy to debug,” said Dave Hermance, executive engineer for advanced vehicles at Toyota Technical Center USA in Torrance.


It hasn’t all been smooth for the Prius. When it arrived in the United States as a 2001 model, it was widely criticized as being too slow, too small, too wobbly on its skinny, fuel-saving tires and too herky-jerky when the brakes were applied.

“It wasn’t a good car, from a standpoint of everyday usability,” said Richard Homan, editor of Inside Line, the auto enthusiast magazine of information provider in Santa Monica.

Complaints about lack of power and poor handling pretty much disappeared when Toyota introduced the 2004 Prius, a larger, second-generation model with a more powerful hybrid system.

Hybrids, for most buyers, are all about saving on gasoline. Although the federal government rates the Prius at 55 miles per gallon in combined city and highway driving, users routinely report mileage in the low-to-mid-40-mpg territory.


Another issue -- the lifespan and replacement cost of the high-voltage battery pack that is the heart of the electric drive part of the hybrid system -- remains a question. The batteries are under warranty for 10 years in California -- eight years in most other states. Toyota says that except for a few unusual cases resulting from an accident or other external damage, it has not had to replace a Prius battery pack.

Toyota’s own tests have run batteries for the equivalent of 150,000 miles with no discernible degradation, and the company expects them to last the useful life of the cars, Hermance said.

Battery replacement costs have dropped to about $3,000 today from $10,000 or more in 2001 -- about the same cost as replacing a worn-out gasoline engine in a conventional vehicle. Toyota has said the cost should continue dropping as battery volumes increase along with hybrid production.

Most recently, a handful of customer complaints about 2004 and ’05 model Priuses losing power has set Toyota off on a hunt for an explanation.


Meanwhile, official reliability scorecards keep the Prius among the top-rated cars on the road.

There have been two minor Prius recalls, neither involving the hybrid system. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration records show just 10 complaints filed this year by owners of ’05 models.

And the 2005 Prius continues to shine with consumers. It won the top spot for premium compacts in the J.D. Power study, with owners reporting 72 problems per 100 cars, well below the industry average of 118 problems. Most of the Prius complaints dealt with features and controls, such as the navigation system, rather than with performance of the hybrid system.

“For that technology to be up there at the top is very good,” said Power’s product research director, Neal Oddes. “Toyota has really nailed it down.”


Partly as a result of its stellar reputation, partly because gas prices are sticking well above $2 a gallon, there are far more potential Prius buyers than cars available. Some shoppers complain about dealers’ adding profitable leather upholstery packages or tacking on “demand” premiums of $3,000 or more.

The base sticker price for a Prius is $21,515, but factory and dealer options can boost the total to $29,000. Used Prius models in many parts of the country, including Southern California, routinely sell for almost as much as new ones.

Diane Wittenberg, president of the Los Angeles-based California Climate Action Registry, recently ended her three-year lease of a 2002 Prius. She bought it from the dealer for $11,000, then sold it to a private party for $18,000.

“I was shocked that it was worth that much,” Wittenberg said. She then used some of the cash as down payment on a new 2005 model.