Hybrid Car Repairs Can Erase Money Saved at the Pump

High-tech gas-electric hybrids can save you money at the pumps, but unforeseen repairs can make them expensive to own in the long term.

Toyota Prius nightshadeToyota

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I have a 2012 Toyota Prius V that used to save me money like a rolling piggy bank. With only one previous owner and a full service history, the gas-electric hybrid compact wagon was the perfect bridge between a gas guzzler and a battery-electric vehicle when gas prices were soaring.

But my frugal fuel-sipper is now a motion-less money pit. The Toyota has been sitting at a hybrid repair facility for nearly two months. I have spent well over $2,000 replacing its head gasket and a long list of other mechanical repairs. Still, the Prius V shakes violently—like it’s having a seizure—every time I start it. And although it sips a lot less fuel than a comparable gas-only Corolla (41 mpg city/highway combined versus 29 mpg), the hybrid can cost around $5,000 more to buy.

All of which caused me to ask myself a tricky question: What if all the money I once saved at the pump could have been better spent on a less frugal (but more affordable and reliable), gas-only small car without the Prius V’s complicated hybrid battery system, such as a Toyota Corolla or a Honda Civic?

Based on my years of experience buying and selling used vehicles, here are the costs of a few common repairs to also consider before buying a used hybrid.

Head Gasket Replacement: 2010 to 2015 Toyota Prius/2012 to 2017 Toyota Prius V

This repair requires 18 hours of labor and can cost anywhere from $2,000 to $4,000, depending on whether you take it to a Toyota dealership or an independent repair facility. It’s common to see this repair between 140,000 and 200,000 miles, although there have been several cases with lower mileage examples.

Failing Brake Accumulator: 2001 to 2015 Toyota Prius

You may hear the braking system on a Prius make a pumping noise before the accumulator goes out. Once it does, it will take a lot longer for you to stop, and the car will not be safe to drive. The repair can cost up to $1,000, depending on the model. Park it and go to car-part.com or eBay, where the cost of the part will be substantially less than at the dealership.

Hybrid Batteries: All Makes and Models

Heat and lack of use play a big role in the lifespan of a hybrid’s battery, with many batteries replaced between 120,000 to 200,000 miles in regular use. Toyota, in particular, is known to have durable nickel-metal cadmium and lithium-ion batteries. However, the batteries in the 2010 to 2014 Honda CR-Z and Honda Insight hybrids are also standouts, along with the Ford Escape from 2005 through 2012 and other Fords from the same era that used a licensed version of the Toyota hybrid system. But hybrid batteries can be expensive if they need to be replaced, costing hundreds or thousands of dollars depending on the make and model.

Miscellaneous Hybrid Repairs to Look Out For

Other repair red flags to watch out for are hybrids that haven’t received coolant replacement based on their maintenance schedule, infrequent oil changes, and those that have been overfilled with junk that can often get lodged into the cabin’s air vents needed to keep the battery cool.

My personal experience has changed the way I look at hybrids. Even with the Prius V’s excellent fuel economy, I would need to drive approximately 130,000 miles with gas at $4 a gallon to save enough money to cover the price premium over a comparable Corolla. And that’s before you factor in the costly repairs I’ve had to deal with. That’s why I now drive a compact car with a gas-only engine.

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Steven Lang
Steven Lang is a special contributor to Capital One with nearly two decades of experience as an auto auctioneer, car dealer, and part owner of an auto auction. Some of the best-known auto publications turn to him for his expert insight. He is also the co-developer of the Long-Term Quality Index, a survey of vehicle reliability featuring over two million vehicles that have been inspected by professional mechanics.