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Can Honda build a good hybrid?

By Claes Bell ·
Tuesday, August 17, 2010
Posted: 4 pm ET

The Honda Civic Hybrid is having battery issues. Edmunds is reporting the company recently sent letters to 100,000 owners of 2006-to-2008 Civic Hybrid owners letting them know battery packs in their cars could deteriorate and fail prematurely, confirming what many owners getting sub-par gas mileage already knew.

Instead of offering to replace the batteries, the company has developed a software update to fix the problem, iPhone-style. But some outlets are reporting the update preserves battery life by simply using the battery less, causing degradation in fuel economy and slower acceleration.

Honda Civic Hybrid cars are having battery issues.

Honda Civic Hybrid cars are having battery issues

I doubt a software update will be the last word on this. This is a class-action lawsuit waiting to happen. Somehow, I don't think 100,000 Civic Hybrid owners are going to accept losing the hybrid's 41 mpg, especially considering the premium -- around $5,000 -- they paid over a standard Civic to get it.

The battery packs are warrantied for between eight and 10 years and between 80,000 and 150,000 miles, depending on what state the owner lives in. That should give owners some leverage to demand a replacement, should they need it. The company has already replaced upward of 4 percent of the offending battery packs, reports Edmunds, and I would expect that number to rise.

But Honda needs to go further here -- it should come out publicly and offer to replace the battery packs of anyone affected by the issue, without delay. It would be incredibly expensive, and probably turn those Civic Hybrid models into net losers for the company, if they're not already.

But Honda can't afford to go all Toyota/old-school GM and Ford on their customers and just tell them to deal with it. Not only would that be wrong and damage the Honda Civic Hybrid brand further, it would hurt the public's perception of future Honda hybrids and electrics, and battery-dependent cars generally.

Buying a car is in some ways a huge act of faith. You're basically staking thousands of dollars on the belief that a car will run as advertised long enough for you to get some return, in the form of payment-free transportation, for your investment. Just ask GM and Ford what the consequences were of poisoning the well of public perception of their products. We've discussed on this blog before how hard it is to move the needle of brand perception. How many years and millions of dollars and reorganizations did it take for Ford and GM to get back on track?

This one problem isn't going to cut Honda that far down to size, but considering battery-dependent vehicles are in all likelihood going to figure prominently in the future of the automobile, do they really want to be known as the car company that can't make a good one?

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Cali Amara
August 26, 2010 at 5:18 pm

HCH owners are getting shafted. I'm pretty certain that the dealer updated the software without even telling me because since my oil was changed I've not been able to finish a tank of gas with higher than 34-35 mpg. Since I've owned my 2006 HCH I've always maintained 40-42 mpg, depending on the season. This is a travesty and they are using our checkbooks to protect their own. Why should Honda be able to recode our vehicles (which, by the way, were originally touted on the invoice/sticker as 50 mpg) to use more gas and emit more toxins to spare themselves from abiding by the battery warranty. We need a class action lawsuit because big businesses just keep getting away with this nonsense!

Claes Bell
August 22, 2010 at 12:11 pm

I believe it's the same battery pack, although with the Accord's bigger engine, there may not be the same issue, which apparently results in part from the Civic's high reliance on the electric battery/ motor for acceleration. For what it's worth, I haven't yet seen anything about similar issues on the Accord. But keep in mind that despite the fact the Accord Hybrid has been discontinued, honda still must support owners with warranties (7-10 years on the battery pack) and parts. If there does end up being a software fix for the Accord, I'll let readers know on the blog. Thanks and good luck!

Claes Bell
August 22, 2010 at 11:45 am

Sorry about that. It should be up now. Thanks for reading!

L Ross
August 22, 2010 at 9:52 am

I commented, but it disappeared.

L Ross
August 22, 2010 at 9:51 am

Does the Honda Accord hybrid use the same battery pack? Please don't forget about us 25,000 Accord hybrid customers who were assured Honda was not going to discontinue that model. I would never have bought it if I were told the truth.