Fix for Civic hybrids’ dying batteries may hurt gas mileage, acceleration

When Honda Motor Co. rolled out its latest-generation Civic hybrid, it was sold as the automaker’s green car of the future.

But five years into production, Honda has discovered that its high-tech batteries can die years early, a potentially expensive flaw that the automaker has been addressing with a software update that many owners claim has made the car less environmentally friendly.

Jason Marchesano of Overland Park, Kan. said the battery in his 2007 Civic hybrid started losing its ability to hold a charge last year. Rather than replace the battery, which was under warranty, Honda loaded a software program into the car’s computer that he said made the car sluggish and slashed the vehicle’s gas mileage.

When he complained again several weeks ago, Honda installed a second software update, cutting efficiency further. Today he gets just 33 miles per gallon, compared with 45 when the car was new.

“I’ve been sitting here scratching my head and asking, why did I get a hybrid?” said Marchesano, a computer consultant whose hybrid’s gas mileage these days is scarcely better than the conventional Civic, which is rated about 30 mpg and costs several thousand dollars less.

Marchesano and other hybrid owners fear that Honda has decided to sacrifice their vehicles’ performance in order to avoid the huge cost of replacing thousands of faulty batteries, which are still under eight- or 10-year warranties and cost as much as $3,000 each to replace.

Those worries were heightened in recent weeks when the Japanese automaker mailed a letter to more than 100,000 owners of 2006, 2007 and 2008 Civics in the U.S. and Canada warning that their batteries “may deteriorate and eventually fail” earlier than expected. The letter said a software patch would fix the problem.

Honda says the free software update is designed to make the car run better.

“This is certainly not a financial decision,” Honda spokesman Chris Martin said. “This is not just to prolong the life of the battery, it also helps improve the performance.”

It does that, he said, by ensuring that the battery doesn’t crash at crucial times. And, he said, it could preserve the battery beyond the warranty period.

But the software updates have caught the attention of the California Air Resources Board, which regulates vehicle emissions.

The agency, which complained that it was not properly notified of the modification, met with Honda officials last week to determine whether the changes would increase emissions, a potential legal violation that could trigger a mandatory recall, fines or both.

“It becomes a potential air quality concern for us,” said John Urkov, chief of the air board’s in-use vehicle branch.

Urkov said the meeting was preliminary but noted that Honda had swapped out more than 4% of the batteries in the 2006-08 Civic hybrids in California, exceeding the agency’s threshold for acceptable failure and triggering the regulatory meeting. Honda’s policy is not to replace the battery until it’s completely dead.

“We want to know if they’re coming up with a strategy to try to protect the battery so they don’t have to replace them,” said Urkov, adding that no other model of hybrid had such a high rate of battery failure.

Some drivers contend that the software update has in fact increased their mileage and decreased signs of a fading battery. Happy with the fix, they argue that, at least for their driving style, the car works just fine.

“I haven’t really noticed a decrease in mileage,” said Joe Goldberg, a Harrisburg, Pa., attorney who got the update late last month after the battery in his 2006 Civic hybrid started fading out three months ago. “I don’t lose the battery nearly as frequently as before.”

But many other Civic owners contend that the changes have had a dramatic impact on fuel economy and dampened the cars’ acceleration so much that they feel unsafe to drive.

Nearly a third of all complaints to safety regulators about the 2007 Civic hybrid are about the car’s battery, for example, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it is in discussions with Honda on the issue.

Many of the complaints, which are anonymous, alleged that the sudden loss of power was a safety issue. The condition “becomes a safety hazard on freeway onramps, passing or any time you need to move fast to avoid something,” one complaint reads.

NHTSA “is aware of the issue and is continuing to monitor complaints,” said Karen Aldana, a spokeswoman for the agency, adding that it had received no reports of accidents or injuries attributed to the alleged problem.

Honda’s Martin declined to discuss the company’s meetings with regulators, but said Honda did not consider battery degradation to be a safety issue because the primary source of power in the Civic hybrid is the internal combustion engine.

The battery issue has attracted the attention of plaintiffs’ attorneys, who said they were weighing whether to add it to existing legal claims that the Civic hybrid delivers lower gas mileage than advertised.

Attorney Nicholas Chimicles of Haverford, Pa., said he was reviewing the new software update to see whether it has bearing on a suit he filed against Honda seeking class action status. That case, filed in 2007 and still pending after a proposed settlement was thrown out in February, alleges that the advertised mileage ratings of the Civic hybrid proved unattainable in real-world driving. If that is caused by faulty batteries, he said, it could bolster his case.

Like other hybrids, the Civic uses a combination of a gasoline engine and a small electric motor — powered by the battery behind the rear seat — to drive its wheels.

To deal with failing batteries, Honda’s letter urges installation of software that protects the battery by limiting the role of the 20-horsepower electric motor while boosting use of the car’s 93-horsepower, four-cylinder gas engine.

According to the letter sent last month to Civic hybrid owners, the update tunes the Honda hybrid system, known as Integrated Motor Assist, to limit cycling the battery, which means the electric motor often won’t kick in to give an added power boost when accelerating.

It also curtails how often the gasoline engine will shut down when the car is at rest, such as at a red light, a key fuel-saving feature in hybrids.

The software update, which is also being implemented in Japan, doesn’t apply to other model years of the Civic hybrid or to other Honda hybrids.

Honda’s first hybrid, the Insight, was introduced in 1999. Drivers loved the quirky hatchback, but because it was a two-seater, it had limited commercial appeal. In early 2002, Honda extended the hybrid system to its top-selling Civic compact sedan, hoping to find broader audience.

Like the Insight, it uses a small electric motor driven by a 158-volt nickel-metal hydride battery (separate from the 12-volt lead acid battery) to assist a primary gasoline engine; unlike the Toyota Motor Corp. Prius and other hybrids, it cannot run on the electric motor alone.

Early adapters embraced the Civic hybrid, particularly when the redesigned and slightly more powerful 2006 model came out.

Unlike its predecessor, which received few complaints of battery failure, the second-generation Civic hybrid began showing signs of a problem after several years on the road.

A self-proclaimed “hypermiler,” Larry Greenfield of Fountain Valley felt justified in dropping $22,600 for his 2006 Civic hybrid because of the 56 mpg he could squeeze out of the car.

But after 3 1/2 years and 40,000 miles — far below the 10-year, 150,000-mile warranty on the components of the hybrid system required under California law — Greenfield noticed that the battery would no longer hold a charge, leaving him, joltingly, without electric assist.

His dealer acknowledged that the battery was damaged but refused to replace it because it was not completely deteriorated, Greenfield recalls. Instead, the car was given a software update, which Greenfield says decreased its fuel economy 20% without eliminating the battery failure.

After Greenfield threatened to sue, the dealership replaced the battery as a “warranty goodwill gesture” last September, according to receipts. But the dealership said it could not reinstall the original software, and Greenfield said he now can get only 46 mpg. “They fundamentally changed the way the car operates,” he said.

Honda’s Martin declined to say what replacing a battery under warranty costs Honda, but said the current suggested retail price of a replacement is $2,100, not including shipping or installation.

Martin declined to provide nationwide failure rates for the battery because that data is proprietary, but said Honda had noticed some issues with shortened battery life “under certain circumstances,” such as with drivers who use the air conditioning constantly and those who drive in stop-and-go traffic.

That’s because the stresses of those conditions demand lots of electricity, forcing the battery, which is charged by the motor, to run through more cycles. In addition, Martin said, the chemistry of batteries degrades faster in hot regions of the country, such as Arizona.

Until receiving Honda’s letter in the mail recently, actor Adam Pilver of Los Angeles didn’t know what to think of the intermittent battery crashes on his 2007 Civic hybrid.

The only problem, Pilver said, was getting up hills when the electric assist conked out. But now that he’s aware of how Honda is handling the issue, he said, he’d prefer not to get the update at all.

“It sounds great for Honda but bad for us if we’re losing the hybrid part of our hybrids,” he said.