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Big expensive batteries, and the second owner

New hybrids and electric vehicles (EVs) are proven money savers. That’s great for the first owner, but what about the second? When a used hybrid or EV has 60,000 miles, how much of that battery life is left, and how much are replacements? Does the lifetime gas savings offset battery replacement costs?

Despite hybrids hitting the roads 20 years ago, and decent EVs debuting around 10 years back, potential buyers usually cite battery replacement concerns as the main reason to avoid a hybrid or EV. Battery failure in a cell phone or laptop is common, and the fear is a hybrid/EV battery will only last 2-4 years. If the consumer electronics battery cycle holds true for cars, then owners are in for huge repair bills down the road.

Hybrid Batteries

The Toyota Prius [1] is the world’s best-selling hybrid vehicle, with over 1.6 million sold in the U.S. since 2000, according to hybridcars.com. The large hybrid battery under the hatch floor is the key to its exceptional gas mileage, but it’s also an expensive piece of tech. The EPA classifies hybrid batteries under emissions equipment, requiring manufacturers to warranty them for eight years and 100,000 miles. Some states, like California, require emissions equipment to be covered for ten years and 150,000 miles. If the battery fails within warranty range, your total replacement cost is zero.

Outside the warranty, the cost is on you. Our local Toyota dealer quoted us $3,126 for a new Toyota battery with a three-year transferable warranty. The service tech said most original batteries will need replacing in the 150,000-200,000-mile range, with their most extreme case being a 320,000 mile swap. However, local shops can do it for less, quoting $2,985 for a new battery, or $2,250 for a used and reconditioned battery.

“Having a battery failure after 10 years would be within the range,” said Eric Powers, owner of EV Powers Hybrid Battery Service & Repair. “Maybe on the low end of the range, but it’s not unheard of.”

For the DIY crowd, Dorman sells remanufactured batteries for $1,400 before tax, available at Advance Auto Parts stores. While a serious cash savings, Powers cautions that this route is not for everyone.

“The car has potentially 220 volts direct current. Fortunately, when you make a mistake you won’t feel it. Because you’ll be dead.”

Probably best to leave battery swaps to a trained technician.

EV Batteries

On the electric side, the Nissan Leaf [2] is the best-selling EV in the U.S., with over a quarter million sold since 2010 according to Nissan. With roughly 100 miles of range (depending on conditions) and the ability to charge from common 110 volt outlets, the Leaf makes for an efficient daily commuter [3]. Initially, the Leaf received some negative press from the first few model year cars, as the uncooled battery tended to fail prematurely in the brutal Arizona heat. Nissan made changes in 2013 that increased reliability at the cost of some range. The warranty covers eight years and 100,000 miles.

The battery on an EV solely drives the vehicle, so it understandably costs more than a hybrid battery. A 24kW Leaf battery will run you $5,500 at the dealership, and requires the original core turned in for recycling. For those with technical know-how, Dorman will also sell you a reconditioned Leaf battery with a warranty for $2,174 plus tax. No, they won’t help you install it.

“So, Can I Save Money?”

Let’s do some math to see if you can save money buying a hybrid or EV after paying for battery replacement. According to the Department of Transportation, the average driver puts around 13,500 miles on their vehicle each year. AAA shows the national average price for gas as of this writing is $2.25 per gallon. A 2015 Prius achieves a 48 mpg average according to the EPA, while the same year Toyota Camry [4] (the most popular car model in the U.S.) earns a score of 28 mpg. Using the numbers above, the Prius would save you $450 a year in fuel costs versus the Camry. If the battery fails one month outside the warranty in 2025, you had eight years of savings at $450 per year, making for a total savings of $3,600. That will pay for a new battery through a dealership and leave enough money for another year of gas. Score one for the hybrids.

For the Leaf, we’ll compare it to a similar sized gasoline car such as the Honda Fit [5]. The compact Fit returns an admirable 36 mpg in mixed driving, but the Leaf burns zero gas. When calculating electricity costs, the Leaf returns 114 MPGe of electricity, for an annual fuel savings of $350 versus the Fit, and nearly $700 per year versus the Camry. If the Leaf battery lasts until just outside the warranty, you have saved $2,800 with the car (or $5,600 if you were cross-shopping the Camry). That does sound steep, but consider that there are no oil changes, spark plugs, timing belts, or other engine maintenance costs.

“Letting a battery pack sit unused for months on end, like going on vacation for three months, can be as bad as one that is overused continuously, like a cab,” said Powers. You should probably skip the hybrid or EV if you expect long deployments overseas or plan to drive for Uber every day. Other factors that degrade battery life are extremely hot environments, high altitude driving, and leaving the battery discharged overnight.

While the big batteries are incredibly expensive, hybrid gas savings more than cover the cost of battery replacement. With an EV, the savings need to consider the reduced cost of routine maintenance, otherwise savings are washed away by excessive battery costs. Either way, the benefits are more than just gas savings [6].

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