My new car: old hybrid with new batteries

If you own a hybrid vehicle that is 8 years old or older, replacing the batteries could make it run like new or better than new.

In 2009 I purchased a gently-used 2004 Honda Civic Hybrid with manual transmission from some good friends. At the time it didn’t have a whole lot of miles on it and still doesn’t — despite being almost 12 years old Eiffel1 only has around 82,000 miles on it. I’ve been an urban-dweller in the heart of Seattle the past 5 years and use the car infrequently, mostly on weekends to go out running or hiking.

Honda Civic Hybrids use the electric motor as an assist to the small, efficient gasoline engine. During acceleration the electric motor kicks in and provides more power to get the car moving. This is particularly noticeable when going up Seattle hills and getting the car moving from a stop in first gear. The battery is recharged during deceleration or when the car thinks the engine can spare the power. It gets around 41 MPG on average, including both in-town and highway driving.

About two years ago it was clear that the hybrid battery was losing its ability to retain a charge. There wasn’t as much ummph in going up the hills as there use to be. It was annoying but not extreme and didn’t significantly impact the fuel efficiency of the car. Honda warranties their batteries for 8 years or 80k miles and it was past the 8-year mark by the time I noticed it.

Last summer I made one of the biggest mistakes a hybrid car owner can make: I let the car sit for months without driving it.2 When we started driving it again, the Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) light and the check engine light would periodically come on. Then they came on and stayed on. Throughout all of this, the overall fuel efficiency didn’t really decrease— still in the low 40s or upper 30 MPGs. The act of driving the car, however, was miserable: no power when going up hills and getting the car going from a stop on a hill was painful.

A Honda dealership will happily sell and install a new hybrid battery for the tune of $3500. As if that wasn’t expensive enough for a car with a Blue Book value of around $4k, most of the batteries they sell you have refurbished cells. I then found Bumblebee Batteries who will sell you a battery with brand new cells for $2100 including a 3-year warranty. They’re based out of Portland so we combined a trip down there to see friends with buying, and installing, a new hybrid battery. They usually ship it to you so I called prior to make sure we could pick it up and install it in their parking lot and they said sure.

We did a trial run of removing the battery in our garage before we left to ensure we had all the necessary tools, and to give ourselves confidence that we could do it. We drove down to their location in a light industrial area, bought the battery, and installed it in about 30 minutes. They were gracious enough to let us use their empty garage to do the work! They take the old battery, replace the cells with new ones, recycle the old ones, and resell it.

The car drives like it’s brand new. In fact, it’s better than when I got it. It has power going up hills! A drive up Snoqualmie Pass doesn’t involve downshifting into 3rd and puttering along at 45 MPH. Interestingly, the car still gets about the same gas mileage. The little gasoline engine is the main workhorse of the car whether with or without the assist, but the electric engine is what makes the car enjoyable to drive.

If you have an older hybrid that is in great condition but drive horribly because of the battery, I encourage you to consider getting a new battery rather than buying a new car. I also strongly recommend the good folks at Bumblebee Batteries as a source of that battery!

1 Eiffel is named after the band Eiffel 65 from their hit song Blue (Da Ba Dee). Sadly, the car isn’t as blue as the song might convey.

2 I’ve since learned that letting a NiMH hybrid battery sit for several months and then getting in the car and driving it is a Very Bad Thing. The battery cells discharge fully while sitting for months, but the car will only charge the battery until one cell is fully charged leaving most of the cells well below a full charge. The car isn’t capable of ever fully charging all cells and you’re down to driving on dribbles.

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I'm a gay geek living in Seattle, WA.

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