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Hybrid cars show they can go the distance

When gas-electric hybrid cars went on sale here near the start of the new century, their public image was of marvelous gas mileage but possible durability problems -- especially with the batteries. Now a study by auto website has found numerous hybrids on the road having already traveled 150,000 miles.

The study analyzed all hybrids offered for sale online during calendar 2013 and found that up to 5.4 percent of them had topped the 150,000 mark. The best-known and top-selling hybrid, the Toyota Prius, registered 2.1 percent in the high mileage category. That represents about 2,000 cars out of about 95,000 Prius vehicles on offer. Two hybrid SUVs, the Toyota Highlander and the Ford Escape, each measured 2.7 percent of sale offerings above 150,000.

Hybrids were introduced to the U.S. market first by the Honda Insight in 1999 and then by the Prius in 2000. The Honda Civic Hybrid came on the market in 2002. "With many hybrids still on the road from the early 2000s, we can start to measure their longevity and reliability," says Phong Ly, founder and CEO of iSeeCars, a search engine that shows used cars for sale from a variety of other sites.

When hybrids were introduced, automotive writers and internet commenters speculated that battery life might become a problem and that replacements could cost as much as $10,000. That proved to be wildly overestimated. Prius battery replacement started at $2,985 and now is $2,588 for current models, a Toyota representative told MoneyWatch.

Toyota says the battery pack is designed to last for the life of the car -- which it defines as about 180,000 miles. But some cars go beyond that. Consumer Reports tested a privately-owned Prius that had logged over 200,000 miles and found no significant dropoff in gas mileage or acceleration.

Manufacturer warranties for hybrid batteries typically run for eight years or 100,000 miles, whichever comes first. In California and other states that follow its regulations -- mostly in the Northeast -- that warranty rises by state law to 15 years and 150,000 miles. Toyota won't say exactly how many Prius batteries have been replaced under warranty but describes it as "a very small number."

These other points emerged from the number-crunching by iSeeCars:

  • The list of top seven hybrids models with more than 150,000 miles was dominated by hybrid pioneers Toyota and Honda. Toyota and its Lexus luxury brand had four listings and Honda two.
  • Although most auto makers now have hybrid offerings, the Ford Escape Hybrid -- introduced in 2004 -- was the only model on the list from a Detroit-based manufacturer.
  • With the Escape and Toyota Highlander Hybrid tied for second on the list, iSeeCars CEO Phong Ly hypothesized that the roomy SUVs have been used as family vehicles and therefore piled up the miles on vacation road trips.

If you have been attracted to the high gas mileage of hybrids (rated at 50 MPG for the Prius in combined city and highway driving) but have been concerned about durability, this study seems to indicate you have little to worry about.

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