Adventures With 'Ol Sparkie

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Mar 11, 2016

Back when hybrids were a new thing, I remember the argument—from known automotive authorities!—that they’d be trouble because  they had two drivetrains. “That’s twice as much stuff to break,” they said. It was the number one argument against the Toyota Prius back in 2000. The second one was, “It can’t tow a boat.”

So much for that argument. (Image by Dave B via Flickr, CC 2.0)But since I’m not a mechanic like Ray, and don’t make boat payments, the car’s ability to tow heavy objects never meant all that much to me.

And the argument that hybrids won’t be reliable has proven absolutely, absurdly false. Priuses are now taxis around the world, and regularly racking up 300,000 or more miles (one did more than 900,000). Every Prius owner I know reports rock-solid reliability. Consumer Reports regularly gives the Prius a row of red circles—the best frequency-of-repair rating.

Sam Abuelsamid, a research analyst at Navigant Research, tells me that green cars aren't seen on the back of a tow hook all that often:

All indications based on real-world historical data so far is that most hybrid and electric vehicles should be just as reliable and durable as conventional cars. The big question mark had previously been the lifespan of rechargeable batteries. Automakers took a conservative approach to managing the cells in the first generation of green cars, and for the most part they have performed beyond expectations. The only exceptions have been some early Nissan Leafs that experienced some hot weather battery degradation, and possibly early Tesla Model S cars. The jury is still out on the Tesla, although a number of owners have now gone over 100,000 miles, and most owners will probably be fine.

I helped my friend Doug buy a Prius back in 2004, and he’s now well into its second time around on the odometer, and he reports only minor problems. This despite the fact that Doug routinely—routinely—shifts his car into drive before its through backing up!

Back in the day, we abused old Dodge Darts, Volvo 122S and Ford Falcons like this, with similar results. One guy I know went 40,000 miles without changing the oil in his Plymouth Valiant and it didn’t miss a beat.

Proof positive that Belmer's Volt made it to 300,000 miles. (Belmer photo)Now I can report that Erick Belmer has a great story to tell, and it’s not with a Prius. His 2012  Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid is probably the most complex car Chevrolet ever built. That’s why so many pilots buy them—they love the tech geek stuff. Erick has just broke the 300,000-mile barrier in his trusty Volt, nicknamed ‘Ol Sparkie.

Belmer says it’s still going strong, and its battery pack is at original specs, still capable of delivering 35 miles of all-electric range. “I’m 110 percent satisfied with this vehicle,” millwright Belmer told HybridCars.com. “This is the only vehicle I ever purchased that I feel like I got more than I paid for,”

Erick Belmer (with daughter Erin) is understandably proud of his 2012 Chevy Volt family car. It's carried him 300,000 miles with minimal trouble. No boat payments for his mechanic! (Belmer photo)There’s a funny thing about Volt owners. Although they presumably bought the car for the flexibility of internal-combustion power when the battery range is expended, they in fact hate to use the gas engine at all. Any day they drive on batteries alone is a good day for a Volt owner. According to Green Car Reports and GM data, owners recharge their cars an average of 1.4 times a day (is that kind of like having 1.4 children?) Belmer’s 300k miles was via electric power a third of the time.

Belmer is a long-haul commuter, driving 6,500 miles per month to his job at a GM assembly plant in Lordstown, Ohio--110 miles one way. Sure, he has a reason to be a GM loyalist (have you ever seen a foreign car in a Big Three factory parking lot?) but ‘Ol Sparkie has returned the favor with stone reliability.   

Today’s electric cars haven’t been on the road long enough for good reliability data, but they should be bulletproof, since there aren’t that many moving parts. Electric motors rarely go bad. As noted, Tesla’s Model S has had some issues, but the company is so good about repairing owners’ cars that it hasn’t hurt the reputation much. We’ll keep an eye on it. If green goes bad, Car Talk readers will be the first to know.

The 2016 Volt sports many improvements, including more than 50 miles of EV range. See its virtues detailed in this video:

 

Get the Car Talk Newsletter