On Earth Day, let’s take a moment and acknowledge the Toyota Prius hybrid. As America’s most popular hybrid, the Prius first arrived back in 2000, when it began life as an awkward and slightly cartoonish-looking sedan.
With the second-generation model, introduced in 2004, the Prius transformed into an economical hatchback that remains inexpensive to buy, reliable, and delivers outstanding mileage. Today there are several variations available, including the plug-in hybrid Prius Prime which can run entirely on electric power for up to 25 miles.
It’s a car that will seemingly run forever. Maybe that’s why of the roughly 2 million examples sold here in the U.S., Toyota estimates about 90-percent of all Prius models are still running.
Nothing lasts forever, unfortunately, and even the most trouble-free Prius will eventually start to experience a loss of performance due to a worn-out battery pack. According to the experts, this usually happens after about 10 years or 150,000 miles of use – though some cars might travel noticeably longer without any problems.
Symptoms of a failing battery include excessive engine noise, strange fluctuations regarding the state of battery charge, and lower fuel mileage. In more extreme cases, all the dashboard warning lights (including a triangle with an exclamation point in the middle) will suddenly illuminate. No matter how severe the problem might be, there are several options to breathe new life into your trusty Prius.
The options include: Full battery replacement, battery reconditioning, or replacing individual battery cells. Let’s look at the pros and cons of each.
Buying a Brand-New Replacement Battery
Each Prius battery pack consists of a specific number cells – there are 38 in a first-generation Prius (model years 2000-2003) and 28 in a second-gen model (2004-2009) If you could see them, they’d look like large grey Lego building blocks lined up in rows.
Toyota can outfit your used Prius with a brand new, factory-authorized battery that costs anywhere from $2,500 to more than $4,000, once installation fees are factored in. It’s pricey, but you do get a 3-year, 36,000-mile warranty. If your Prius is more than a decade old, the cost for this battery could be more than your car is currently worth. Owners can trim about $1,000 off the price if they allow Toyota to keep the old battery core, however.
In a reconditioned battery, the cells are replaced by newer ones, calibrated and matched based on capacity and resistance levels. That’s because any spike in capacity or resistance in just one cell can affect the entire pack. Neighboring cells work to overcompensate for the failing one, then they all start to wear out.
Imagine a box of strawberries and how mold from one berry can rapidly spread to neighboring ones. Okay, it’s a gross comparison, but the same thing happens when one errant cell drags down an entire hybrid battery.
Mark Sokol, founder and owner of Falcon Hybrid Systems in Ridgefield, N.J., is a self-confessed “recycle-aholic.” His company – one of a number hybrid-dedicated shops around the country – will take your car and recondition the old battery pack with a brand-new or remanufactured battery system. For example, a second-generation Prius would receive reconditioned cells from a newer third-generation model.
Inspecting the battery and making certain the pack is performing optimally takes the company’s team of technicians about 20 hours. “There’s no way to recondition a battery quickly,” warns Sokol. “It’s simply not possible. You could cause more damage to the car.”
Prices range from $800 to $2,600, depending on the model year and whether new or remanufactured battery cells are used. Installation is a $200-$300 extra, though the work comes with a 1-year warranty. Falcon Hybrid Systems will also ship Prius battery cells around the U.S., if you prefer to do the work yourself (or have a local shop do it for you).
Individual Cell Replacement
Remember how we compared battery cells to Lego blocks? In this case, imagine replacing only one or two broken Legos, versus starting everything from scratch. This quick fix might be sound too good to be true. To be honest, it’s pretty cheap and can sometimes be done in only a few hours.
A quick search on Amazon or Ebay turns up Prius battery modules for less than $40 apiece. A few hundred dollars spent on getting your Prius back on the road seems a logical choice, compared to hundreds (or thousands!) of dollars spent on a new or reconditioned battery.
But this is widely considered to be the riskiest option, since replacing only worn battery cells could lead to only a short-term solution. Other cells might be damaged and quickly fail after you’ve had this fix done.