If you believe that a survey of 1.4 million people has meaning, then you might be inclined to say that hybrid vehicles are reliable – maybe even more reliable than gasoline-burning cars.
That’s a strong statement, I know. Those who’ve popped the hood on a hybrid know how complex they are. But if you thumb through Consumer Reports’ 2010 auto issue, you’ll find some pretty startling conclusions about vehicles such as the Toyota Prius, Honda Civic Hybrid and Ford Escape Hybrid, among others. And those conclusions come from the best source of all – the owners.
First, though, a word about the survey: Every year, Consumer Reports magazine sends out automotive questionnaires to its readers. This year, they received 1.4 million responses in return (though not all were from hybrid owners). The returned surveys contain information about all of a vehicle’s sub-systems – engine, transmission, electrical, suspension, brakes, exhaust, paint and body integrity, among others. After collating the responses, Consumer Reports awards ratings, which are depicted by red and black dots. Highest ratings are solid red; lowest are solid black.
This year’s hybrids are rife with red dots. The 2009 Prius, for example, has solid red dots in all 17 categories. The 2009 Honda Civic Hybrid sports solid red in 14 of the 17. Same for the Ford Escape Hybrid.
“The reliability ratings of hybrids tended to be a little better than the ratings of conventional vehicles,” said Jake Fisher, a senior automotive engineer for the Consumers Union. “Perhaps it’s because there’s a lot of attention being paid to these vehicles, or perhaps it’s because more engineering resources are going into them. Either way, though, their reliability has been good.”
For many engineers, it’s surprising that a relatively young, complex technology would do so well. After all, complexity and reliability seldom go hand in hand. But Fisher says it shouldn’t be so surprising. “It’s not rocket science,” he told us. “The batteries are not new. Electric motors are an old technology. And gasoline engines are well understood.”
Admittedly, a sampling of the 2009 model year isn’t necessarily a tell-all. Many vehicles don’t start to reveal their problems until they’re a few years old. But the Prius’ reliability ratings, which go back to the 2001 model year, are essentially a canvas of solid red dots. The Civic’s and Escape’s multi-year ratings aren’t quite as good, but they’re still better than average.
So what’s the secret? Fisher believes the answer is straightforward.
“Just buying a hybrid doesn’t mean you’re buying a more reliable car,” he said. “A lot of people have looked at it holistically and said, “Gee, look at the Prius; hybrid cars must be better.’ But the manufacturers that are producing the best hybrids – Toyota, Honda and Ford – also happen to be producing the most reliable vehicles of all types. It just happens that the most reliable auto makers developed the first hybrids.”