Dear Car Talk:
The other morning, I went out to start my Toyota Prius and go to work. The car started up fine (just the electronics come on), but as soon as the gasoline engine came on, there was a terrible, roaring noise.
When I pulled into my mechanic's shop, even before he looked at the car, he said "someone had her catalytic converter stolen." He was right. My whole tailpipe was gone! Why would someone do this? -- Patty
Why did Willie Sutton rob banks, Patty? Because that's where the money is.
All catalytic converters contain tiny amounts of some rare minerals: platinum, palladium and rhodium. In the past five years, rhodium has gone from about $600 an ounce to something like $30,000 an ounce. Or even more than the weed Snoop Dog likes. So, even in small quantities, rhodium is very valuable.
And, for some reason -- presumably related to their small pollution footprint -- Prius converters have more rhodium than other cars. So thieves are targeting Priuses in particular (though not exclusively), because their converters are worth hundreds of dollars.
Typically, a thief will sneak into a driveway, crawl under the car and use a large pipe cutter to cut the exhaust pipe right near the engine, just in front of the converter. Then he'll just take the whole exhaust system -- the converter, the muffler and the tailpipe -- and scram. The next morning, you get in your car, and it sounds like the Gatling gun.
And as I'm sure you know by now, Patty, a new aftermarket converter will cost you about $1,500. A new factory one from Toyota will cost $1,000 more than that. What can you do? Not much, unless you can train a family of poisonous snakes to live under your car.
In truth, it's going to take the recycling industry or law enforcement to clamp down on the resale market -- to make it harder for thieves to resell stolen converters -- before we'll see this trend subside. And the pressure to do that will likely come from insurance companies, who probably aren't happy about forking over millions of dollars in stolen converter claims.