Staff Car Report: Hybrids. Eventually the worst of all worlds?

There’s an argument that some automakers seem keen on: the hybrid is the best of all worlds. A car that can be electric for your (short) daily commute and petrol (or diesel) for those longer journeys. An automobile that can meet your every perceivable need. The perceived need for flexibility is, I suppose, the reason that I bought a big-ish four-seater over a teeny tiny car when I first needed something other than my beloved 1969 Morris Minor. And whilst that 1970s Vauxhall Viva proved to be a disaster of 1970’s sized proportions, I still do that same calculation when deciding on any modern car and tend towards the ‘4 people plus luggage’ answer.

To return to the subject at hand, a hybrid, they say, is a vehicle which is flexible. It’s efficient and multifunctional. But it’s also amazingly complex and, as was amply demonstrated by my 2005 Toyota Prius a few days ago, it is also prone to the vagaries of both EVs and traditional petrol vehicles. I’m aware that the hybrid battery pack in the Prius is not quite as good as a brand new one; with 144k miles on the clock, that’s to be expected. But it’s within what I consider acceptable limits.

Unfortunately, ageing doesn’t just affect the EV components. In this case, it was the dinky little 12V battery, which it turns out was as old as the car, that gave up the ghost.

Prius battery date code

Period charm from the 2005 battery

It’s been cold here. Not really, really cold. But on a couple of nights the outside thermostat’s dropped to 1°C, and on the trips I’ve taken out there’ve been a few days where the jaunty little ice snowflake’s not disappeared from the dash for the entire journey. So it wasn’t really surprising that after nearly a decade in service the battery in the Prius was a little bit frail. Lead acid batteries, as they age and sulphate, get pernickety about their treatment, and standing them outside at 1°C tends to kill them if they’re on the edge. Indeed, in a traditional petrol vehicle it’s recommended that the battery is changed every few years to ensure that you don’t encounter the rather distressing situation of getting in and finding a deceased battery. I suspect the same statement is made on the Prius, but I doubt many owners remember to do it. Hell, some owners forget to top up the oil…

Of course, as a driver of vehicles that are not top of the posh automobile tree, I’ve encountered the entertaining ‘click…[pause]…oh’ scenario more than a few times. Most notoriously, I had a 1982 VW Golf that would occasionally, and for no apparent reason, drain the battery overnight. And after many years’ service, the Minor’s battery has been known to flake out too. The moment of discovering a dead battery is never a fun one. Despite that, and the development of shiny new LiIon jump-start battery packs, I don’t actually have a jump-start pack kicking around. So it was that, having attempted to turn the Prius on and been met with a distressing beeping noise, no centre console screen and an array of warning lights, I found myself jogging back through to the garage and then wandering around cursing for a little while before finding an old, spare battery and the bag with the jump leads in.

Jumpstarting a Prius

This is not the recommended method of jump-starting a Prius

Thankfully, because the Prius actually just uses the 12V circuit to turn on all the cunning electronics, my puny Morris Minor jump leads (circa 1970) and the last-charged-about-8-months-ago battery were able to provide more than enough current to get the Prius going.

But it did lead me to thinking about the fact that, at the end of the day, an aging hybrid is left with all the weaknesses of both the ICE and the EV. Whilst EVs have a delightful mechanical simplicity, their electrical systems are the stuff of an electronics engineer’s dreams. High voltage components and complex circuits marry with general purpose computers tasked with the complexities of managing systems vastly more advanced than most ICE vehicles possess. Similarly, modern ICE vehicles are a cornucopia of mechanical, electronic and electromechanical systems, all tethered together to provide the experience of reliability and low maintenance that modern owners require. To keep things ticking over, cars of the ’60s and ’70s required frequent fettling. A tweak here and a touch there, keeping everything just right. They demand it, and if it’s not provided, they rapidly become the stuff of nightmares.

As cars progressed in complexity through the ’80s and ’90s, reliability went up, but the ability to repair them and keep them going without replacing large, complex parts – that capability all but disappeared. And then we have the modern ICE vehicle; change the oil and it does the rest. More or less. Until it doesn’t. At which point all the fettling in the world won’t fix it.

And so I ponder the fate of these hybrids as they age. The best and worst of both worlds, perhaps. The Gen 1 Prius is known to have episodes of transmission failure and, whilst repairs are possible, they’re certainly not simple. Nor is it the stuff of the standard back-street garage’s normal workload. Even as a longstanding shadetree mechanic I baulk at the thought of whipping out the Prius’s motor for the kinds of repair required.

Perhaps I’m unduly negative, and modern mechanics will be completely unphased by the problems exhibited by an aging hybrid fleet. But perhaps not, and those of us with these less shiny hybrids will continue to cower in fear at the sight of the dreaded master warning light.

Master warning light on on a 2005 Prius

There glows the master warning light. A symbol to alarm the Prius owner.

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