Road Worrier

Road Worrier: Some hybrid owners are dissatisfied with their vehicles

Staff WriterJanuary 10, 2012 

When they bought their hybrid Honda Civics back in 2006, Aneil K. Mishra and Jeffrey A. Wald expected to save a lot of money on gasoline. And both men hoped that, by their examples, they would encourage more North Carolinians to buy fuel-thrifty hybrid cars.

"I felt like, as an early adopter, I was supporting the market for more energy-efficient vehicles," Wald, 45, of Cary, said Monday.

"I wanted to be on the cutting edge," said Mishra, 49, of Durham.

Since then, both men have been disappointed with their hybrids. Now they're thinking their next cars might be diesels.

Like a California woman who drew national attention last month when she sued Honda in small-claims court, Mishra and Wald say their hybrid Civics never quite delivered the average 50 miles per gallon promised on fuel-economy stickers in 2006.

And since then, the cars' performance has declined markedly.

Mishra got above 40 mpg on the highway when the car was new, but only in the low 30s around town. Now, with only 50,000 miles on the odometer, his overall fuel economy has dropped to the low 30s.

"I just don't think they've met their promise," Mishra said of hybrid cars.

Wald started out getting 45 mpg when he drove carefully; now he's lucky to get 40 mpg.

"Since efficiency was the main reason I bought the car, I feel cheated," Wald said. "You would expect the performance to stay the same over a reasonable life span."

Honda now is the target of class-action lawsuits for owners of hybrid Civics from several model years, with proposed settlements that would give each owner $100 to $200. The automaker installed a software fix, but Wald agreed with other owners who said their fuel economy only got worse after that.

Problem in aging battery

The dwindling performance has been tied to the car's aging battery, a key element in gas-electric hybrid automobile technology.

When the car was new, Wald said, the gas engine would switch off when he stopped for a red light. The battery had plenty of power to run the air-conditioning on its own. Now, he said, the engine is more likely to keep running because the battery doesn't seem to hold as much of a charge.

Heather Peters of Los Angeles opted out of the class-action settlement. Instead, she sued Honda in small-claims court for $10,000 to cover extra fuel and other costs.

A Los Angeles judge heard arguments last week and is expected to rule this week.

Peters has said she hopes to inspire other unhappy car owners to take the direct route in small-claims courts, where justice is swift and no lawyers are needed. In the class-action case, she said, the resolution will take years and the lawyers will get most of the money.

Although Peters claims that her car salesman guaranteed she would get 50 miles to the gallon, Honda says buyers are always told that their fuel economy will depend on how they drive the car.

Honda says it is required to publish the Environmental Protection Agency's fuel-economy estimates for each model.

"We have no choice," Neil Schmidt, a Honda specialist, testified last week. "We have to put these numbers on the label."

More realistic estimates

The EPA revised its test methodology a few years ago, and now it says its mpg estimates are more realistic. The 2006 hybrid Civic rating was dropped from 50 mpg to 42 mpg.

The hybrid Civic is still highly ranked for fuel economy. EPA pegs the 2012 model at 44 mpg - ranking the hybrid Civic second only to the Toyota Prius, when plug-in electric cars are not counted.

Mishra's family also has a hybrid Toyota Camry, which has delivered better fuel economy than the Civic but is not much fun to drive, he said. If the Civic was delivering mid-40s mpg, he said, he'd consider buying another one.

Instead, he plans to sign up for the class-action settlement against Honda and wait for his $100 check. He's checking out plans in Detroit for new clean-diesel cars.

"The hybrids just aren't attractive to us right now," Mishra said.

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