Hybrid Cars: Common Maintenance Issues

March 15, 2012

Learn about the maintenance issues that occur most frequently in hybrid cars, and why you should take your car to a hybrid vehicle specialist.

Electric and hybrid cars have been under some hard scrutiny since their introduction to the market several years ago. Some of the claims critics have made against hybrids and electrics deal with parts and maintenance. It is true that these cars require some special care, but for the most part, naysayers have met their match with reliable vehicles that can go many years without needing any serious maintenance.

Maintenance
Since hybrids have the components of a regular gas engine along with their electric aspects, they do require the same routine maintenance as any other gas vehicle. This includes the changing of air filters and oil. However, the oil does not need to be changed in a hybrid at the same interval as its pure gas counterpart. This is because the electric side of the car takes some of the load off of the engine. Therefore, the car can go between 5,000 and 10,000 miles between oil changes. The air filter for hybrid cars typically needs to be changed approximately every 40,000 miles. Like the oil, brake pads of a hybrid car need to be changed less frequently. This is because of the regenerative braking properties of these cars. All other engine maintenance is much like that for any other car.

Battery Life
One of the biggest attacks made on hybrids has to do with battery life. It is said that the battery life is very short, and if something were to happen to it, it is very expensive to replace. Contrary to popular belief, hybrid car makers usually guarantee their batteries for at least eight years or 80,000 miles, and in the states that adhere to California's Partial Zero Emissions Vehicles Act, those statistics are 10 years or 150,000 miles. This is longer than most people actually own a vehicle. One of the keys to keeping a battery in good repair is to keep the battery charged between 40 to 60 percent. This way, the battery is never completely drained or charged, increasing its life. This can be maintained strictly through regenerative braking.

Common Hybrid Car Engine Problems

The first generation of hybrid car engines are reaching 10 years in age and should provide a lot of information concerning the types of problems particular to hybrid cars. Hybrid car owners do not report problems at the rate that other car owners do. In fact, hybrid car owners have a high level of satisfaction when it comes to their ownership experience.

The exception to this is the experience of German automakers, who have yet to launch a reliable hybrid model. Unfortunately, the efforts of Audi, Porsche and Volkswagen have led to development disasters.

Engine Light
There are some complaints from hybrid car owners concerning the engine light coming on or staying on without necessarily indicating a particular problem with the vehicle. This is issue seems to be common of most cars and newer ones in particular and could be a simple sensor glitch.

Replacement Costs
The battery and other elements of the hybrid car engine that allow the transfer of power between the gas engine and the electric battery can be expensive to fix or replace in cases where damage or a defect arises. In these cases, owners should check for any service bulletins released by the carmaker to determine if a particular repair is covered by a general recall or service issue identified by a lot of owners. Owners should also take the time to report any regular concerns or repairs (aside from routine ones, such as oil changes) in order for the carmaker to document any patterns or trends.

German Hybrid Efforts
The efforts the German "big three" to create hybrid versions of the VW Touareg, Audi Q7 and Porsche Cayenne have been stalled recently. Design challenges and a differing approach than that of the successful Japanese models produced by Toyota and Honda have led to delays in production and anticipated model releases.

The heart of the hybrid system, which is the transfer of power from the small internal combustion engine to the lithium-ion battery pack, has created most of the problems for the Germans.

How Do Hybrid Car Engines Work?

The hybrid design combines a high-efficiency gas motor with an electric motor on the same drivetrain. Independently, electric drive and gasoline drive vehicles have a range of advantages and disadvantages. By combining both of these in one package, a hybrid vehicle is able to garner the benefits of each option. The gasoline motor is just as functional as in a normal vehicle and runs like the engine in any comparable conventional car. Hybrid cars are often able to use motors with a smaller displacement (engine size) than a conventional car, because of the addition of the electric drive system. The electric motor can function as a "helper" to the gas motor; when the vehicle needs extra power the electric motor activates and helps drive the car.

The Electric Drive System
A gasoline car actually wastes a good deal of energy when operating under normal conditions. What the hybrid system does is harvest the power that is usually lost and store it in the form of electricity. The batteries in a hybrid act like an extra gas tank that is able to fill and refill itself while the car is operating. Every car generates electricity to work, but most of that energy is wasted. The hybrid car stores that energy to be used later. The hybrid's electric motor not only assists the gas motor with acceleration and power, but it is able to function independently as well. That means that when the vehicle is operating under conditions where the electric motor can drive the vehicle on its own, the gas engine shuts down and the car relies solely on electric power. Every second that the car's gas motor doesn't have to run is a second that the car doesn't have to use gasoline.

Unique Advantages
There are quite a few benefits to using a hybrid drive system. A hybrid car is able to use electric power to operate which is much more efficient. However, it can also use gas power when necessary. One of the biggest downsides of an all-electric vehicle has to do with range; since the batteries act as the car's "gas tank" once the power in the batteries has discharged, the car can't be driven until they have been refilled. The recharging process can take hours, and that's inconvenient for long trips.

The hybrid can operate on gas alone, which means the car has two "gas tanks," the batteries that power the electric drive system, and the conventional gas that fuels the gasoline engine. Hybrids are also able to save power other ways by using systems like regenerative braking. This is one of the reasons that hybrids are able to achieve such excellent gas mileage in city driving conditions. Regenerative braking systems harvest the energy that it takes to stop the car once it is moving. In a normal car all this energy is wasted as heat, but in a hybrid it is stored in the battery as power for the electric drive system.

How to Diagnose Problems with Hybrid Cars

Diagnosing problems with a hybrid car is no different than diagnosing problems with a traditional internal combustion vehicle.

Being aware of how the vehicle normally sounds and handles gives the driver an awareness of what is normal for the hybrid car. When changes or deviations from the norm start to occur, this may be indicative of a potential or existing problem that needs to be addressed by a mechanic or vehicle service professional.

Listen to the Car
The best way to diagnose any potential problems with your hybrid car is to listen to it. When starting it up, is there coughing or sputtering or weird noises? These could be signs of issues with the ignition or combustion or some other engine problem that needs to be addressed by a mechanic.

Maintain a Routine Check-Up Schedule
Without fail, you should take your hybrid car to a mechanic for regular, routine check-ups. This will allow your mechanic to maintain a schedule of what repairs have been done as well as note any changes or situations that arise. Keeping a routine of repairs is clearly the best way to diagnose problems and maintain your car in order to avoid a costly repair down the road.

Advantages of Going to a Hybrid Car Specialist Mechanic

Hybrid car technicians are in demand, as they are specifically trained to deal with these cars. If your car is a hybrid, it's advisable to go to a hybrid car specialist, as he knows exactly what to do with your car, unlike the average repair shop mechanic.

Hybrid Car Differences

There are some differences between a hybrid car and a traditional one:

  • Alternating current and voltages present under the hood and vehicle
  • Charging systems
  • Braking systems
  • Cooling and air conditioning systems
  • Batteries, number of batteries and type

Proper Parts
It is absolutely mandatory that you get proper parts for your hybrid car. Nothing less than that will do. As mentioned earlier, hybrids have different braking systems, cooling systems/air conditioning systems and batteries. A hybrid car specialist will know exactly which part to replace, if needed. Moreover, the batteries are expensive and you don't want to get cheated by a mechanic who thinks a cheaper one will do. This will ruin the vehicle and you will end up spending much more money on repairing it further.

Safety Issues
Safety is of prime importance. A mechanic who does not know how the hybrid works could mix up the wiring system and your life could be in danger. Most hybrid cars have color-coded wiring in their high-voltage systems. Even a near dead battery could cause fatal accidents. Skilled specialists will have an understanding of the high-voltage power and the control systems. They will act safely, thus minimizing risk to customers, as well as themselves.

Hybrid Specific Maintenance
If you need to have preventative maintenance of a hybrid specific kind performed on your vehicle, you should consider taking your vehicle to the dealership where you purchased it. Although the dealership may be a bit more expensive than other service centers, you'll be assured that the mechanic or technician has adequate experience working on hybrid cars. Taking it to a less experienced mechanic may wind up costing you more in the long run.

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