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Hybrid cars a new challenge for mechanics

Some hybrid car buyers fear that when their warranties run out they'll have to stick with dealership repairs instead of independent mechanics, which tend to be less expensive.
Ford Motor Co. service training instructor Dennis Pluff, center, talks about the automaker's Escape hybrid engine to mechanics during a class in Allen Park, Mich.Carlos Osorio / AP
/ Source: staff and news service reports

With Ford Motor Co.’s Escape hybrid sport utility vehicle due out this summer, the automaker is training thousands of mechanics at dealerships around the country how to service them.

The fuel-efficient vehicle, which has both a traditional gas-powered motor and an electric motor, isn’t vastly different from its standard Escape counterpart.

But while service stations can rotate the tires, fix the brakes and change the oil, owners need to visit the dealerships for anything that requires mechanics to analyze or fix problems under the hood. And in many cases, independent auto mechanics don’t want to touch hybrid vehicles.

Post-warranty fears
For now, it’s not an issue for most owners because warranties protect the cars for many years. But some owners fear the end of the warranty, wary of taking their car to independent auto repair shops, which typically offer lower prices for repairs than the dealerships.

Dean Rudie of Minneapolis has more than 80,000 miles on his Toyota Prius and hasn’t had any problems with his car other than a bad accelerator pedal assembly. But he is eyeing the end of his 100,000-mile battery warranty with some trepidation.

“I called the dealer and found out it will cost $6,320 to replace the huge, 110-pound battery,” said Rudie, 53. “This has given me pause.”

Toyota notes that the batteries are warranted for eight years or 100,000 miles, and expects the price to drop significantly as more cars and batteries come on the market.

Henry Lister, another Prius owner, says dealership mechanics “are the only people I know that know anything about working on” the hybrids. A Chapel Hill, N.C., resident who owns a 2001 Prius, he adds: “My mechanic said, ‘It looks like fun, but I’m not working on it.”’

High-voltage is main difference
Bill Oddo, a Toyota technician, said the main difference between working on a Prius and a standard sedan is working around the high-voltage cables. A regular car battery carries 12 volts. A Prius battery sends out more than 270 volts, enough to stop a heart.

There are various reasons why independent mechanics aren’t venturing into the hybrid repair business.

While instructions are available via the Internet or through written materials, carmakers offer training only to dealership technicians and some fleet partners.

Toyota spokeswoman Cindy Knight notes that's no different than standard, gasoline powered cars like its Camry sedan. "Toyota doesn't directly train independent mechanics to service Camry or any other model," she says. "Independent schools take care of that and will probably add hybrids to their curriculum when it makes sense for them to do so."

"Our training materials, repair and service manuals are available for anyone who wants them, including those for Prius," she adds.

Even so, being trained to work on one hybrid model wouldn’t necessarily translate to the others. Honda uses an entirely different hybrid system than Ford and Toyota. Moreover, the systems feature unique software running more than a dozen computers — the heart of the hybrids’ operation.

The limited number of hybrid owners also makes the investment in research and time to train not worthwhile, said Ray Romayo, part owner of Auto Laboratory in Troy, Mich.

Despite rapid growth of hybrid owners and more than a dozen new models in the works, the number of hybrid owners is a tiny fraction of the total car market. U.S. registrations for hybrid vehicles rose to 43,435 last year, a 25.8 percent increase from 2002, according to recent figures from R.L. Polk & Co., the Southfield, Mich.-based firm that collects and interprets automotive information. Overall, 16.7 million vehicles were sold in 2003.

3,000 Ford mechanics being trained
Ford spokeswoman Angela Coletti said new Escape owners shouldn’t need to go anywhere but the dealer for several years.

While it may be inconvenient for customers to return to the dealer, it likely won’t cost them more money because like the Toyota and Honda hybrids, hybrid portions of the Escape will be under warranty for eight to 10 years. Ford likely will offer free regular maintenance for some undetermined period.

Coletti said 2,500 Ford dealerships have signed up for its hybrid training course and more than 3,000 technicians already have undergone a 2½-hour training course via satellite television. To become certified, the technicians must complete a two-day course in Dearborn. The 3,000 mechanics should complete their training by September.

Honda and Toyota say they’ve trained thousands of technicians in similar certification programs for their mechanics.