The Future Of Beaters? 2007 Toyota Prius vs 2007 Honda Civic Hybrid

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Today on Shitbox Showdown, we’re going into the future. (Insert cool ethereal-sounding music here.) We’re looking at cars that can only get more common in our price range as time goes on, and talking about what that might mean for us lovers of cheap cars.

But first, let’s go back in time to yesterday and see which Buick wagon you wanted:

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And so it is. Shamu the Killer Whale wins. I think this is the right call; I like the looks of the old wagon better, but the newer Roadmaster feels like the “sweet spot” of automotive technology to me, and it sounds like a lot of you agree.

So let’s go from that sweet spot straight into the modern age, and look at a couple of cars that might as well be X-Wing fighters to some of us, looking under their hoods. Hybrid technology sounds cool, and it certainly works, but what happens when those cars have a couple hundred thousand miles on them, and are available for sale for only a couple grand? How does that complexity play when the fifth owner of these cars has to tinker with something on the weekend to get to work? What the hell does that light on the dash mean, and whaddaya mean it has two batteries?

I get the feeling that there are going to be a lot more cheap used hybrids for sale in coming years, so someone like me who only buys cheap used cars is eventually going to have to learn all this shit, because fifty miles to the gallon counts for a lot more than sharp handling and a snicky gearshift, at least when it comes to commuting. I’ve driven both of these cars, and they’re fine, and I wouldn’t mind driving either of them every day, as long as I have a fun stickshift purely dinosaur-powered toy for weekends (which I do). But I have to know I can keep them running myself, or there’s no point.

So let’s dive in, and see just what we’re up against.

2007 Toyota Prius – $2,000

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Engine/drivetrain: 1.5 liter DOHC inline 4 plus electric motor, CVT automatic (kinda), FWD

Location: Austin, TX

Odometer reading: 205,000 miles

Runs/drives? Yes, but with a warning light on the dash

Priuses (or “Prii,” if you’re trying to be clever) are everywhere, and they’re Toyotas, so they probably will be everywhere for a long time to come. So it’s probably important to at least understand how the damn things work. I’m learning this too, so bear with me, and if you’re an expert in these things, feel free to point out what I get wrong.

As far as I can tell, the Hybrid Synergy Drive system consists of one small four-cylinder engine, two electric motors that can also act as generators, a really weird-ass tramsmission that I don’t quite understand, a regular 12V lead-acid battery, a big high-voltage nickel metal hydride (NiMH) battery, and a computer to control it all. One motor acts as the starter and alternator for the normal 12V side of things, and the other is coupled to the engine through that weird transmission and either supplies power to the wheels or recharges the high-voltage battery, depending on what’s needed at the time. (Sheesh. More like Hybrid Sorcery Drive, am I right?)

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This particular Prius has a big red warning light on the dash, and one thing that it has in common with regular cars is that red lights are bad. How bad? Opinions vary, but it could mean the battery needs “reconditioning” (deep discharging and recharging to gain back its capacity) or partial or full replacement. Opinions also vary on whether this is a do-it-yourself proposition, but none of the options sound cheap. However, the seller insists that it drives fine at the moment. You pays your money, you takes your chances, I guess.

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Apart from the “Triangle of Death” (as the warning light is colloquially known), this looks like a 200,000 mile Toyota: grubby but basically fine. The catalytic converter has recently been replaced (and hopefully shielded against theft), and the tires are newish. There are some dents and scrapes along one side, which I guess makes this one a “Battle Damaged” X-Wing fighter.

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This generation of Prius really is a nice, if uninspiring, way to get around. But are cheap ones like this going to be worth the trouble to keep going?

 

2007 Honda Civic Hybrid – $1,900

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Engine/drivetrain: 1.3 liter SOHC inline 4 plus electric motor, CVT automatic, FWD

Location: Granger, TX

Odometer reading: 199,000 miles

Runs/drives? Yes, but has dead cells in the battery pack

Honda’s hybrid system, as I understand it, is nowhere near as complicated or weird. It uses a small gasoline engine, with an electric motor between it and the transmission that also acts as a generator to charge a high-voltage battery (and alternator to charge the 12V battery). Previous generations of Honda hybrids were available with manual gearboxes, but this second-generation of Civic Hybrid only came with a CVT. The motor acts as a helper, not a counterpart, to the engine, offering a boost to the tiny engine’s meager power output. Because of this arrangement, even if the high-voltage battery is completely toast, the car becomes basically a really underpowered normal Civic, insetad of a high-tech lawn ornament like a Prius with a completely dead battery.

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This Civic is in about the same condition as the Prius, and is also hovering around 200,000 miles. The seller says it runs and drives fine, but needs five cells replaced in the battery. How they determined this, I don’t know. The seller claims the cells are “available on eBay,” but I couldn’t find any mention of such a thing, only complete battery packs. Reconditioning services are available, however, it looks like. I understand the process of reconditioning NiMH cells from my days as an RC racer: charge the battery all the way up, then run it all the way down, a few times, to break up crystals that form inside the cells and restore their capacity. Will it help in this case? I have no idea.

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This car is also a little banged-up, and it looks like someone tried to break into it; it has what look like crowbar marks along the top of the passenger’s side front door. There are some general dings and dents here and there as well. But the interior looks pretty nice.

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This one feels like a safer bet to the shadetree mechanic in me, simply because if there ever is a catastrophic failure of the big battery, it gets slow and ineffcient instead of dead. And the system feels more tinkerer-friendly.

It’s a brave new world, and it is finally catching up with us bottom-feeders. It’s still easy enough to avoid old hybrids and focus on strictly internal-combustion choices, but the fuel economy possibilities of hybrids are hard to ignore forever. The technology is a hell of a learning curve, but it might be worthwhile.  Where do you want to start?

 

(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)

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61 Responses

  1. I need to check out the site daily, I have a prius with 285k. at 2000 that prius is too much. Id pay a grand between the quarter panel body work and the red triangle of death. Usually it means some cells in the battery is shot. Throw on a laptop with techsmart or an android phone with the torque app and it can get diagnosed which cell is not working.

  2. Voted for the Prius. 1) a cvt with 200k is not a thing I want in my life. 2) on the old site there was an article about a guy who managed to find a lift kit for the Prius platform (in Czechoslovakia iirc) and took one on the Rubicon Trail eliciting howls of rage from the Angry Jeep Bro crowd

  3. I owned a used blue 2008 Civic Hybrid for a year between 2010-2011. I really liked the car a lot, and despite it being the slowest car I’ve owned, it handled great and I really liked the sci-fi interior.

    I remember this generation of Civic was a VERY big deal when it was released, and technologically speaking it was a pretty big jump from the previous generation.

    I had major issues trying to sell this car for some reason…it took, like, literally a A YEAR to sell it (despite very reasonable pricing). My understanding was that there was a big class action suit against the Civic Hybrids because they weren’t getting the gas mileage advertised or something like that. Its true it was a mild hybrid and I’ve heard some good technical arguments why the Civic’s Hybrid system (although very impressive advertising numbers for MPG) actually saves less fuel than, say, the mild hybrids offered on GM’s GMT900s that were only bringing a 17 mpg truck to 21 mpg. The engine you start with makes a big difference to a series-style hybrid systems.

  4. Finally a car that I actually know something about! I owned a ’06 Prius as the first owner until I did bad things to it at 300k miles. 42 mpg over that entire time. I replaced the HV battery three times. Original HV battery died about 265k miles. Bought an aftermarket Dorman HV battery. It lasted one day. Second one lasted 3k miles. Returned that POS. Got lucky and found a used Toyota HV battery with 2500 miles on it. Great battery. First couple of swaps by a shop at about $250 each. Last one was a DIY job. It isn’t hard, just a lot of things to remove. Excellent instructions by Prof Google. They tend to start using oil around 200k miles, so keep an eye on the oil level, too high fouls the MAF sensor. I let it get too low and water pump failing at the same time, so it overheated and warped the head. My bad. Busted windshield, clearcoat peeling, filthy interior seats, catalytic converter needing replacement, would not pass CA smog. Sold it for $1000. Bought an ’07 before selling the ’06 and swapped the HV batteries to get the known good HV from the ’06. Sold the ’07 cheap to one of my kids, still running great. Now have a ’21 AWD Prius.
    Yeah, driving a Prius in the snow absolutely sucks, thus the AWD now, which works great in the snow.

  5. I had a Prius as a rental a couple years back. I was ready to give it a chance, but damn. It was like forward movement was a secondary priority to saving fuel. It was awful. I voted Honda, because it is simpler, and unlike a lot of folks, I actually liked the styling on this generation Civic. Cool weird wheels, too.

  6. Surprise to see the civic winning out. That generation of Prius is a fine car, my parents have one and it is surprisingly roomy for a 6’4″ 280lbs guy like myself. And parts are everywhere for them. Whereas the Civic, is just a Civic with a hybrid drivetrain….very little space inside and frankly nowhere as interesting as the Prius in terms of overall package. I get the problems the cars have but still, I go for the Prius.

  7. If I wanted one of the ugliest cars of the mid aughts, I would have went with the Prius, but I am not a fan of the styling.

    The Civic to me is a better looking car and an inexpensive wrap would hide those unsightly blemishes.

  8. Wait what’s with this comments needing to be approved thing?!?! Please do not ruin this website with this again. I tried SO hard to comment over on that other website and nothing ever went through!

    Oh and I went Civic but it’s 6 one way half dozen the other with these.

    1. I suspect it’s all the stupid “I made $$$$$ doing whatever” bots that forced this. I’m assuming that’s what it is, anyhow – a stop-gap “at least by default nobody will see that bullshit and maybe the spammer gives up” solution, and not a like, popularity contest sort of deal.

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