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Aqua, Prius, Fit, or Vezel: Guide for Buying Hybrid Vehicles at Japanese Auctions

Dr. Manura Nanayakkara, a practicing doctor in Sri Lanka, shares the research he did before buying his Toyota Aqua.

Toyota Aqua

Toyota Aqua

Honda vs Toyota Hybrics

Electric vehicles seem to be the wave of the future, and hybrids are bridging the gap between all-electric and gasoline vehicles. Many automakers now offer hybrids, and most countries offer tax incentives for buying them. Until recently, the Sri Lankan government offered such a large tax incentive for hybrids that it was not economically viable to buy a good non-hybrid car in Sri Lanka.

So what hybrid to buy? We have several options. I am going to talk about the reliability of hybrid vehicles available to Asian countries that import Japanese used vehicles.

Why Buy From Japanese Auctions?

More and more people import hybrids through Japanese auctions because they are cheap and you can get a good vehicle. In addition, unlike in other auctions, the auction sheets are reliable sources of information (though probably not for accident vehicles, "R" grade).

Problems With Importing Vehicles From Japanese Auctions

Most of the time, imported hybrid vehicles do not have problems. They run just fine. But you should know some of the problems associated with vehicles imported from auctions.

You do not get a warranty when there is no genuine dealership involved. Even though Toyota Lanka, for example, claims they are the “agents,” they will not help with a Japanese warranty on a vehicle you buy through an auction. They only give a warranty to vehicles imported through them. This even applies to vehicle recalls due to widespread manufacturing defects (for example, the Prius Gen 3 inverter malfunction). So if you buy a defective vehicle, even if the defect is a genuine manufacturing defect, you will end up paying millions of rupees in repairs.

So why are people buying a lot of hybrids from Japan? Are they all stupid?

Do not make any decisions now, just read the rest of the article.

1. Toyota Aqua

The Toyota Aqua is a hybrid vehicle developed for the Japanese market and rebranded as Prius C in Western markets. It is a mini-hatchback vehicle with class-leading fuel economy.

2. Toyota Prius

3. Honda Vezel

4. Honda Fit GP5

Toyota Prius:  A time-tested vehicle

Toyota Prius: A time-tested vehicle

Honda Vezel

Honda Vezel

Honda Fit GP5 or 3rd gen Fit

Honda Fit GP5 or 3rd gen Fit

Important Update on the Reliability of Hybrid Vehicles in Hot Climates

  • It seems the second-generation Prius is the most reliable hybrid vehicle in long-term use. This was confirmed to me by several mechanics and mechanical engineers.
  • The next most reliable hybrids are the Toyota Aqua and Toyota Axio. These are very reliable except the battery seems to fail after around five to six years; most attribute this to the heavy use of air conditioning in a hot climate.
  • In addition, the third-generation Prius has an engine oil burning problem and there is a class action lawsuit going on in the USA.
  • It seems that the Honda iDCD (Dual Clutch Disk) hybrid system is not reliable in long-term use and many owners complained of iDCD failure and errors in long-term use. It costs around 3000 US$ to repair the iDCD system in these vehicles.
  • The least reliable hybrid vehicle commonly sold in Asian countries seems to be Nissan X Trail Hybrid. Almost all vehicles experience transmission failure at the 20,000 - 30,000 km range. There is currently a recall of these vehicles in Japan. In addition, the Mazda Axela hybrid is also showing various errors in the hybrid system even though it uses the same technology as Toyota HSD.

Problems of Hybrid Cars

Because hybrid vehicles rely on complex new technologies, they are more likely than non-hybrids to have manufacturing defects. Defects are rare, but they do occur. In newer hybrid technologies such as the Honda Sport Hybrid i-DCD system (in the Vezel and Fit GP5), the chances of defects may be higher.

Recent Car Recalls

So Why Are We Not Seeing Major Problems in Hybrid Vehicles?

Hybrids, on the whole, are not known for having major problems because the systems in most old hybrids are time-tested. For example, the Toyota Hybrid Synergy Drive (HSD) and Honda Integrated Motor Assist (IMA). The Toyota Hybrid Synergy Drive (HSD) was developed in 1994; the first HSD vehicle appeared in 1997, and the first export vehicle was sold in 2001. After launch, HSD had several recalls and manufacturing defects. The problems were corrected and warranty claims were paid because the countries where the cars were originally used had genuine dealerships. Toyota and Honda fixed initial problems in later generations, and then the reliability increased tremendously.

Now, most agree that Honda Generation 2 insights and Generation 2 Priuses are very reliable. In fact, some 2001 Priuses in the US are running today without a battery replacement and with the original core parts!

A 2001 Prius Battery Still Running!!!

A 2004 Prius That Has Driven 360,000 Km

What About Hybrid Batteries?

When hybrids first entered the market, people were reluctant to buy them because they felt the batteries would not be reliable. Many myths were circulating on the internet that hybrid batteries would fail within five years and would need to be replaced within the first 100,000 km. These statements were in fact myths, most of the time.

But there is a catch. The most reliable and time-tested batteries are in fact NiMH batteries. These were the batteries incorporated into our older phones (like the Nokia 3310). The thing with NiMH batteries, even in phones, is that they are very long-lasting if you maintain them properly.

Most vehicle manufacturers now use Li-ion batteries instead of NiMH batteries. The first mass-produced Li-ion vehicles appeared in 2010. Li-ion batteries have a large initial energy density and efficient charging compared to NiMh batteries. Nevertheless, customer experience with current Li-ion phone batteries suggests they will be dead within four years no matter how well you care for them. I understand that vehicle batteries may be different than phone batteries, but still, they are not time-tested. It's possible that vehicles that use Li-ion batteries instead of NiMH batteries may have compromised longevity in exchange for greater efficiency.

Which Vehicles Have Li-Ion Batteries?

These vehicles have Li-ion batteries:

  • Honda Fit GP5
  • Honda Vezel
  • Prius Plugin
  • Prius Alpha (Prius V in other countries)

These vehicles have NiMH batteries:

  • Toyota Aqua
  • Toyota Prius
  • Honda Insight
  • Honda Fit GP1

What Are the Differences in Fuel Efficiency?

Fuel efficiency is determined by a lot of factors.

  • Most Toyota Hybrid Synergy Drive (HSD) vehicles are very fuel-efficient.
  • The Honda IMA is not very fuel-efficient; in fact, it has been called a "mild hybrid." However, Honda claims GP5 and Vezel are the best in their class (newer hybrids with i-DCD).
  • Only the Toyota Hybrid Synergy Drive (HSD) has been tested by independent agencies (the US government and US Consumer Reports).
Prius 4th generation

Prius 4th generation

New 4th Generation Prius

  • Unlike previous generations, the 4th generation Prius was developed from the ground up. It increases the efficiency of power management in various hybrid components, so it is around 10% more efficient than previous models.
  • In addition, Toyota has changed its suspension and the overall frame is more rigid.
  • Toyota is retaining NiMH batteries in the regular 4th generation Prius but includes the more efficient Li-ion battery in the Prius ECO Model.
  • Since the 4th generation Prius has been designed completely new, it is safer to wait to buy it until after its technology matures. If you are in a hurry, then it's better to buy it from Toyota Lanka than from an auction. If problems crop up they will recall the vehicle, and if you have imported it through a Japanese auction you will have to bear costly repairs.

So What Are the Best Options?

  • If you are looking for reliability and peace of mind, then go for tested hybrid technology: Toyota Hybrid Synergy Drive (HSD) and Honda Integrated Motor Assist (IMA). The newer hybrid technologies are for you only if you want to be more fashionable or if you are a risk-taker.
  • Do not buy the newest vehicle models that have just come off the drawing board. Allow at least one year for the model to mature.
  • It is also risky to buy zero-mileage hybrids because manufacturing defects could crop up after a short time.
  • It is both safer and cheaper to buy a vehicle that has been driven at least 5000km and is more than six months old. That way, if there is a manufacturing defect, it will most likely get sorted out before the car leaves Japan.
  • It is also prudent to check for known vehicle recalls and note down model numbers before buying. For example, beware of the Prius Gen 3 inverter malfunction, which costs around Rs. 900,000 to replace.

Accident or R Grade Vehicles

Do not buy "accident" or "R grade" vehicles, especially hybrids, from Japanese auction sites. The auction sheets of R-grade vehicles are not very reliable regarding the vehicle's history, and they do a very slipshod job in repairing them. The repairs are done by non-professionals. They just want to pass the vehicle through export certification.

If you buy a vehicle from a local agent, ask for the auction report and compare the chassis number to the number in the auction sheet. Also check for the letter R on the top right-hand corner of the auction sheet (the rest of the sheet is in Japanese). If an R is there, then it is an accident vehicle.

A Japanese auction sheet:  Look for an “R” at upper right

A Japanese auction sheet: Look for an “R” at upper right

The Test of Time

It is safer to buy a hybrid vehicle that is time-tested and accident-free, has some mileage on it (not zero mileage), and is at least six months old.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.