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.