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.

Gas prices aren’t high enough

Anyone who has purchased a personal vehicle in the last 10 years, new or used, that doesn’t get at least 30 mpg on the highway has no room to complain about gas prices. Note that I’m not making a judgement about anyone’s use of any vehicle, no matter how abysmal its efficiency1, just their lack of leg to stand on when it comes to gas prices.

I’m all about personal freedom – buy whatever car you want – but I’m also about personal responsibility: if you bought a car for commuting with shitty gas mileage, that’s your fault. My 2004 hybrid gets between 40 and 45 mpg in hilly Seattle. Between the gas efficiency and how infrequently I drive my car (I commute by bus every day) I fill up the ~10 gallon tank once every 3 months.

I assert federal gas taxes should be more than double what they are now with the proceeds going to assist individuals with the purchase of fuel efficient vehicles. And I’m not talking about the ridiculously low bar for efficiency used in the “cash for clunkers” — 18 mpg is not an acceptably high bar.

Lowering gas prices is great political pandering, particularly in an election year, but is addressing the symptom, not the problem.

1 At least in this blog post.

Going carless again?

I use my car, on average, once a week on Saturdays to drive out to Redmond to join friends for running out at Marymoore Park. For that luxury I pay about $102.50, not including gas. Maybe it’s time to rethink the whole idea of having a car.

The monthly expenses break down like this:
$86 – insurance
$130 – parking
$194 – car payment
total: $410

I can get around most anywhere I need to go with the bus pass my employer provides at no cost to me — including out to Redmond. And for those times when I do need a car, there are several ZipCars just around the corner from my apartment. Even using one for a whole day is just $71.

And if I sold the car before I register it with the state, that’d be even fewer pennies out of my pocket. (Yes, I’m suppose to have registered it already. I finally got it emissions tested last week so I’m one step closer.) And given my car gets between 40 and 50 mpg, it’d probably sell quite decently with today’s gas prices.

It all comes down to how much I’m willing to pay for convenience. Right now it looks like at least $102.50/week.

Vehicle Title and Registration

Now that we live in Washington, we’re dutifully trying to fulfil our legal obligation as residents. This includes registering our Fusion with the state. We have, however, a problem.

Flash back 3.5 years to when we moved to Colorado. When we moved Benjamin wasn’t working and hadn’t started school, so he was tasked with getting us situated. He was the one that did the research on what was required in CO to register the vehicle, gathering the documents required, and getting it done. At this time we were still paying on the loan on the car and thus the loan company had a lien on the vehicle. Everything went swimmingly.

Flash forward two years when we paid off the vehicle. The loan company sent us our title — a Texas title. This did not seem odd to me at all. Title != registration, right?

That brings us up to today when we’re trying to register the car in WA. According to the online docs, we have to bring in our title, other paperwork, and money and they issue us a WA state title for the vehicle. Umm… we have a TX title but I really think we’re suppose to have a CO title. Sure enough, according to the Denver website (registration is handled by the counties in Coloardo) “if there is a lien, the title will be mailed to the lienholder”. So I call the loan company (our credit union in Austin) and they don’t have any record of a CO title.

So I’m flummoxed. I think I’m suppose to have a CO title, not a TX title. I have what appears to be a perfectly valid TX title and, in theory, can use this to register the car in WA (what do they care about my little CO problem?). What I’m worried about is that this might create some confusion if we ever go to sell the vehicle.

So I guess from here I’ll call the Denver motor vehicle office and see if there was, in fact, a CO title issued for the vehicle. If there was, then I’ll figure out what hoops I have to jump through to get a new one issued and decide if all that effort is worth the perceived benefit.

From my CO/WA experience it appears that a vehicle’s registration and title are more closely linked that I thought.

October fill-up

I’m about 2 weeks later than usual for the fill-up this month, but that makes sense given that I was out of town for 2 weeks in RTP for work.

Date Miles Gallons Cost $/mile Dashboard MPG Actual MPG
2010-08-05 500.7 10.104 $26.42 $0.053 50.7 49.55
2010-09-08 467.6 10.309 $29.47 $0.063 50.7 45.36
2010-10-25 571.0 11.588 $31.28 $0.055 51.0 49.28

September fill-up

I filled up my car again yesterday – looks like a new monthly routine for me :)

This past month I made a trip up in the mountains to visit Meghann and Peter – terrible gas mileage on the way up (23!) but pretty good on the way down (120). I’m guessing it was this trip that threw the dashboard measurement so out of whack with reality. Still, 45mpg isn’t something to sneeze at!

And of course, now that we have a second data point, we need a table!

Date Miles Gallons Cost $/mile Dashboard MPG Actual MPG
2010-08-05 500.7 10.104 $26.42 $0.053 50.7 49.55
2010-09-08 467.6 10.309 $29.47 $0.063 50.7 45.36

Honda Civic Hybrid – a month in review

I received possession of my new car on July 2nd. Meghann and Peter dropped it off after filling it up and running it through a wash. It’s been fun to drive, for the little driving I actually do.

A few days after driving it around the car and I had a brief discussion and the car was christened: Eiffel. Contrary to what you might think, this has nothing to do with Paris but rather the group Eiffel 65 which had the one-hit-wonder song “Blue [da ba de]”. Given that Eiffel is a very pale blue (or a very blue gray — you pick) it seemed appropriate. That and the song was really popular when I first met Benjamin. Apparently I have a distinctive head bop that I do when listening to it which he finds comical.

I had the windows tinted on July 24th and the tint really helps control the heat from our bright Colorado sunlight.

After driving my new car for a month I finally stopped to fill it up today. I went 500.7 miles on 10.104 gallons of gas, or 49.55 MPG. This number is slightly lower than that reported by the car (50.7) but close enough. At $26.42 to fill it up, that’s $0.053 per mile. If a 2004 model can get almost 50 miles to the gallon, why aren’t all 2010 models in that ballpark? What the hell is wrong with the automotive industry?

Moreover I predict at my next fill-up that my overall MPG will be slightly higher because it wasn’t until half way through this tank that I discovered the secret to Auto Stop. With the air conditioner off, when the car comes to a stop it shuts down the engine and starts it back up again when it’s needed. But not always. For the longest time I wasn’t able to discern what the magic sequence was to get the car to go into Auto Stop. I theorized that it was temperature related for a while but eventually ruled that out. After a few days of closely paying attention I figured out the key: the clutch.

When coming to a full stop I was correctly keeping the car in gear to enable the regenerative breaking but I was taking it out of gear without the clutch. Like any manual transmission there’s that sweet spot when the engine RPMs and the transmission ratio coincide to allow slipping the car out of gear without the clutch. In Eiffel that point is just after the car stops the regenerative breaking process when coming to a stop. If you don’t use the clutch, however, the car will not go into Auto Stop. This means for the first half tank of gas I was burning gas at almost every stop for no good reason.

Now that I know the secret I get a much more predictable entry into Auto Stop although there are still some times the car takes itself out of Auto Stop or just won’t go into it when I expect it to. My speculation is that the engine turns on to maintain the temperature of the catalytic converter which operates optimally at specific temperatures.

New car: 2004 Honda Civic Hybrid

Last Friday I purchased a car almost sight-unseen. After writing the sellers a check I gave the car back to them for an undetermined amount of time.

How’s that for a lead-in?

For the past three years we’ve been a one car household. Because I work from home and Benjamin’s school schedule allowed for some flexibility in car usage this hasn’t been too arduous. Since he’s started working full time it’s become apparent that we needed a second car to prevent me from being even more hermity than I already am.

Because I’ve gotten along without a car for so long and because it’s more for the periodic bopping around I wasn’t all that picky about what car I wanted. Enter Meghann and Peter, good friends from Austin who moved to Colorado last year. They recently bought a beautiful home up in the mountains at the end of snow season and discovered that their two hybrid vehicles weren’t going to cut it in the winter and that they really needed at least one 4-wheel drive vehicle. The car they were planning on selling was a 2004 Honda Civic Hybrid. We talked about it and they agreed to sell it to me.

At the time I purchased it, I had never seen the inside of the car, much less driven it. I knew Meghann and Peter took great car of their vehicles and that despite being a 2004 model it only had 59k miles on it. Add on that it gets ~50 mpg with a manual transmission and I was sold.

I borrowed the car from them this past Friday to get it registered (VIN verification, emissions test, etc) which was an ordeal I won’t bother going into detail here1. Then I gave it back to them on Saturday. Right now they need two vehicles until they make some time to purchase their new one. I on the other hand don’t really need it. I have survived without one for 3 years already, what’s another week or two (or three or four)?

The day and a half I had the car I really enjoyed it. It was fun to drive a stick again although it’s a bit different experience than my Mustang — not quite as much get up and go. I still have to get use to the optimal way to drive the vehicle. When driving the ‘stang it was more energy efficient to shift into neutral when coming to a stop light or stop sign to let the engine idle. In the Civic (who does not yet have a name) the vehicle must be in gear to charge the battery so taking it out of gear to coast to a stop prevents it from charging. I grok the necessary change but it’ll take a few weeks to retrain my muscle memory.

When Meghann and Peter hand off the car for good there are two very important things that must be done:

  1. Give the car a name. I’ve been assured that it currently doesn’t have a name so it won’t get confused when I christen it.
  2. Get the windows tinted. I’ve no idea how they survived in Austin without tinted windows!

1 The short version: hybrid cars don’t need emissions testing in CO; DL office != title registration office; Arapaho county != Denver county; was told I needed a Security Agreement form filled out by the bank but in truth I could have filled it out myself there in front of her instead of leaving, faxing it to my bank, having them fax it back, getting it notarized (by suggestion from my bank) and coming back later to wait in line again.

eGo CarShare – hassle vs value

Ever since moved to Colorado we’ve been a one-car household. Overall this hasn’t been a problem seeing as I’ve also worked at home since we moved too. Because Benjamin was in school I was able to schedule my use of the car when he was in class — I’d drop him off, run my errands, and pick him back up after his last class.

Now that he’s at his internship I have to schedule any errands during the weekend, and sometimes that just isn’t possible. Luckily, eGo CarShare placed a car within walking distance of our house. The idea is that you’re able to rent the car in 15 minute increments. You pay by the quarter-hour and the miles driven — the insurance and gas is included.

I had hoped to report to you how wonderful this experience was. So far it’s been a mixed bag. I’ve only used the car twice. The first time was a decent experience after learning how to use a Prius (oddly, starting the car isn’t intuitive). The second time was a disaster and proves to be getting worse by the day.

The second time I rented the car was April 8. I had a meeting from 1:00 to 3:00 just 2 miles away from my house. I wasn’t comfortable biking there due to the overall inaccessibility of the location by bike due to I-70. Instead I walked down to the Town Center, had lunch, and at 1:00 walked over to pick up the car. I fob’ed in, and noticed that there was about 1/4 of a tank of gas left. I say “about” because it’s a Prius. The gas gauge is a digital read-out and it isn’t entirely clear if there were 12 total bars of which only 3 were lit up (thus 1/4 full), or if there were 10 total bars and three of them were lit up (thus 1/3 full). Sadly this is an item of concern. If, during your use of the car, the unit has 1/4 tank of gas or less, you are suppose to go to a Conoco and use the CarShare fleet Conoco card to fill up with gas. If you fail to do so you pay a $25 fee. As I was unable to ascertain what the level was, I decided to err on the side of caution and plan to fill up with gas before returning it.

At 2:55 I left my meeting and drove to the nearest Conoco — which is 1 mile on the opposite side of where I would have returned the car (ie: I added 2 miles to my overall trip due to needing to fill it up with gas). The pump would not give me a receipt so I had to go inside and get one from the cashier. I ended up returning the car 4 minutes late, which will cost me a fee of $27.50 because I didn’t notify them first. CarShare will credit you $2 for the hassle of filling up the car. However, it apparently takes at least 15 minutes ($1.625) and 2 miles ($0.60) to accomplish that task — or $2.23. Worse, because I didn’t initial my receipt (because I wasn’t aware I was suppose to) I’m not even getting the $2 credit!

And it gets worse. I got an email today saying that the car was “filthy” when the next occupant got in it. Well, it was filthy when I got in it too — but apparently I’m suppose to call and report that immediately and if I don’t I’m assumed to be responsible for it. Tack on an additional $25 plus the cost to clean it.

So we’re looking at a minimum of $52.50 ($27.50 late fee + $25 Improper Return of Vehicle fee) plus whatever they charge me to clean the car in addition to the $18.22 it cost me to rent it in the first place.

I freely admit that many of the issues I brought on myself due to lack of knowledge: I should have called and let them know that the car was dirty, I should have called and gotten confirmation about how the gas level reads in the Prius, I should have extended my reservation by 15 minutes in order to fill it up thus costing me only $1.63 extra instead of $27.50 — all newbie mistakes. Although now that I know, given my last experience I’m not very motivated to continue using this resource.

Update: After communicating via email with Amanda, the CarShare fleet manager, it appears that customer service is alive and well within the organization. After explaining the situation Amanda took my word that the car was filthy when I got to it and is following up with the previous user. Moreover she is forwarding my email to the billing manager and she expects them to waive the late fee due to the gas issue. Even if they opt not to waive the late fee, the customer service level alone is enough for me to give them one more shot. As I told Amanda, I really want to like this service to supplement our 1-car household. I just need to stop making newbie mistakes and keep the Member Support phone number on speed-dial.

Fusion, not fission

This Saturday Benjamin and I went and bought a new car: a 2006 Ford Fusion. The entire car-buying experience (from loan to insurance to buying the car) was a very stressful and frustrating ordeal. Let me break it down:

Selecting a Car
Finding which car we wanted to buy was the no-brainer. We did our research and select four cars that meet our MPG and amenity criteria. They were the Ford Fusion. Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, and Nissan Altima — all of which were in our price range. On Monday, January the 16th we went and test-drive every vehicle except the Camry (which Benjamin took one long look at and said “nope, no way”). We made it clear to the salesmen that we were only test driving and would not be buying a car that day. The test drives were very pleasant as were the salesmen. In the end it came down to the two-door Honda Accord and the Ford Fusion. After some discussion and research we settled on the Ford Fusion.

For a variety of reasons we wanted Benjamin to own the car and thus has to be on the loan. In order to facilitate this I was going to give him $12k (the maximum tax-free gift amount for 2006) for the down payment and he could finance the rest. We were hoping to have him as the only owner for reasons that I don’t want to go into at the moment.

Benjamin’s credit union was willing to give him the desired funds at 5.80% interest – the lowest of any of our financial institutions. That was too damn easy I swear.

I called my insurance company about adding Benjamin to my policy. They stated that he would have to be on his own policy even if he lived with me. I thanked the woman, hung up, and went insurance shopping. I went to the HRC website and looked up which insurance companies scored the highest on workplace equality index. Nationwide insurance scored 100%. I found an agent in my area (just down the street), called him up and got a quote to match my existing coverage on both my house and my car. To do a 1-for-1 swap with my current insurance would save me $500 a year. Moreover they were willing to put Benjamin on the policy if both of our names were on the title (apparently Texas law requires the person on the title to insure the car). I received two quotes, one with Benjamin on my policy (+$800 a year) and one with him on his own policy (+$1600 a year). I went ahead and put the gears in motion to switch my coverage to Nationwide while we went back to figure out our loan.

Loan – revisited
Benjamin’s credit union would not allow me to be a co-signer on his loan because we didn’t have joint credit. We explained that we have a joint credit card (and savings/checking account) through my credit union but that wouldn’t work. Without my name on the loan we can’t have both of our names on the title and thus can’t have them on the same policy. I contacted my credit union and asked if we could get a joint loan with them. They said that wouldn’t be a problem although their lowest interest rate is 5.95%. That’s 0.15% higher but still better in the long run if we’re going to save $800 a year on insurance. We’re only financing for 3 years which yields a savings of ~$1400 over the life of the loan if you factor in the higher rate of separate insurance policies. I had wanted to have the loan completely taken care of when I went to talk with the dealership so I asked the loan officer when I could come in and fill out the paperwork. She asked what dealership we were planning on buying from. Turns out the credit union has a contract with most dealerships in town to have the dealership file the paperwork directly to the bank and “make it easier on the customer”. That means that the dealership has to run the credit report and other credit-type paperwork on behalf of the bank. The credit union’s contract with the dealership specifies that credit union customers can not go directly through the credit union that they must go through the dealership. WTF? Ok, fine – we’ll do it that way.

Car pricing
I dutifully went online and used a tool to calculate the dealer price of the vehicle that we wanted to purchase including all of the features as well. I did some calculations and decided the absolute maximum amount we would pay for the car including TTL. If the dealership wouldn’t sell me the car for this price, we wouldn’t be buying it — at least from that dealership. jeffford & jonobie had recently purchased a Mazda 3 and found out that IBM employees get a special pricing plan from Ford, the X-Plan. The X-Plan starts the price negotiations at supposedly the dealer’s price (although I don’t buy that for a minute) but the price is suppose to be significantly less than the MSRP. I did some research and did the appropriate steps to obtain my Ford X-Plan PIN that I would need to present to the dealership to obtain X-Plan pricing. By this point I think we were prepared for the war.

Buying the car
Earlier in the week Benjamin and I contacted our sales person and made an appointment to come into the dealership at 3pm on Saturday afternoon. Benjamin had to work in the morning and wouldn’t get out until 1:15pm at the earliest. Shortly after he arrived home our sales person called and said that two separate couples had come in and were wanting to buy the car, could we come in sooner? We said yes (I’m wary the whole time thinking he’s just trying to catch us off guard) and leave for the dealership.

We drive up and don’t see the car in the lot next to the other Fusions. Unsure of where it might be we walked into the showroom and there it is! The car had been detailed and placed in the showroom which was very obviously why people were suddenly interested in it. The sales person set us down and asked what kind of payments we were wanting to make. I informed him that we wanted to negotiate the total cost of the vehicle, that I was on the X-Plan, provided him the paperwork, and set back. He went to go ask if his manager would sell the cost at X-Plan cost (since there were other buyers that presumably would pay more than X-Plan pricing for the car). His manager apparently agreed. The sales person then wanted to know how we were going to finance it and I said that I wanted to complete a buyer’s order with a finalized price before talking about financing. He dutifully filled out the buyer’s order, describing each line as it was filled out. Beyond the X-Plan price (which I truly believe to be negotiable even though they won’t tell you that) the only items that I believed to be negotiable totaled $100. The final price was ~$500 less than what I had decided to buy the vehicle for and instead of haggling over $100 I decided to just take it.

There isn’t much more to add – except that I had to argue with the finance manager why I didn’t want his extended warranty. When I mentioned that when Benjamin worked at CarMAX that he received more in commission for selling an extended warranty than he did for selling the car the man got on the defensive and said that Covert was a “family owned and operated” dealership and that they wouldn’t rip off their customers like CarMAX – the sleaziest dealership in the business (yeah, like I believe that).

Benjamin doesn’t like the names I’ve picked out for the car: either Cold or Fission. He does, however, absolutely love the car. I am very pleased with how well it drives, how quiet it is inside, and how happy it makes Benjamin — that in itself is worth the car’s weight in gold.