An Illustrated True Saga of Costly Car Repair

by Joshua Michtom

At Coney Island on the last weekend of my kids’ summer vacation, we rode the Cyclone, which has been operating under electric power since 1927.

When we started our long journey home, it was on the subway, which has more than a century of electrically powered travel under its belt.

From there, we got on a Metro North commuter train, another shining example of electric locomotion. Our car was in the parking garage at the station in New Haven, waiting to carry us on the final leg of our journey.

But alas, the last bit of our electric journey was ill-fated: our little ’02 Prius, reliable in its first decade and, thereafter, in its first year with us, greeted us with a dashboard full of automotive alarm. The central feature was an icon of an exclamation point inside the silhouette of a car. Traditionally, this symbol appears as a very small light on the dashboard of gas cars and means “check tire pressure” (even though it seems like it should mean, simply, “Car!”). But in a Prius, according to our owner’s manual, it means, “Hybrid system error. TAKE CAR TO TOYOTA DEALER IMMEDIATELY.”

Of course, when you are 40 miles from home at 7 p.m. on a Sunday with two tired children in the back seat, “TAKE CAR TO TOYOTA DEALER IMMEDIATELY” is really just a complicated way of saying, “FUCK YOU.” So we drove home, and everything seemed OK.

The next day, I took it to our friendly neighborhood Toyota dealer, who called me later in the day with the news that the hybrid battery had to be replaced.

Have you ever been in a serious accident in a car or bicycle, and there’s that split second when you’ve lost control of the vehicle and you know that in very short order, something very terrible, largely unpredictable, and probably painful is about to happen? That’s pretty much how I felt when Jay from Hartford’s Toyota superstore gave me this quote. (Not that it helped, but he was a pro, dropping his voice in pitch and volume and saying “three grand” with all the grim severity of a doctor reporting the presence of an inoperable tumor.) If I had $3,000 lying around — well, I wouldn’t have $3,000 lying around, because I would immediately use it to pay off some of my considerable debt.

I wanted to tell Jay that there must be some sort of mistake. I mean, we bought the car a year ago for $3,500. How could it need $3,000 in repairs with only 76,000 miles on it?! The problem is that for most of us (including me and my girlfriend), it is nearly impossible to argue credibly about car repair because we have no idea how cars work:

So what to do? A thing I have always hated about Connecticut is its love of and reliance on cars. The whole state is just an archipelago of little cities and sprawling suburbs in a sea of highways. This means that it’s hard to make do here without a car, especially because both my girlfriend and I have jobs that sometimes require us to travel to other parts of the state.

The happy upside of this is that Connecticut is chock full of car dealerships. So I started making calls. “I have a first-generation Prius that needs a new hybrid battery,” I would say, trying to sound relaxed and knowledgeable. “The first place I took it wanted $2,600 for the battery and another $400 for the labor. I’m hoping you guys can beat that price.”

Some places just said no, probably recognizing that the business of someone who owns a twelve-year-old Prius isn’t worth that much. Some places could offer me a better price on the battery but wanted more for the labor. With every call I made, I changed my script, quoting the lowest price anyone had given me on the battery and the labor, even if these came from separate dealerships.

One place could sell me the battery for $1,900 but wanted $850 for the work, so I pressed the guy. I said, “That’s more than double what someone else quote me for labor. How can that be?” I expected him just to come down a little, but instead, he offered a long discursion on the fine art of Prius battery replacement, the careful steps involved, the inherent danger in the operation. As far as I know, he is Connecticut’s only artisanal Prius mechanic:

Finally, I found a place that would match the lowest battery price and the lowest labor price, for a grand total of $2,300. “We’re basically making no money on this,” the Assistant Service Manager told me, “but we’re doing it because we want your business.” I had no idea if that was entirely true, but a $700 savings seemed significant enough, and I was running out of nearby dealerships. My boss was good enough to caravan with me to the dealership after work and drive me back afterward. (Pro tip I learned on the drive: a Prius with an ailing battery works a lot like any complicated electrical appliance that you don’t understand. If it’s not operating as it should, turn it off, wait a few minutes, then turn it on again.)

One week later, my girlfriend and I picked up our rejuvenated little car, which we agreed is now morally obligated to serve us faithfully for the next decade, because holy shit, $2,300 is a lot of money. It was the first time either of us had used a credit card in two years, which hurt, but what can you do? We left the dealership and went out for a nice sushi dinner, which we paid for with cash.

Josh Michtom is a public defender in Hartford, Connecticut. He spends way too much of his spare time decorating his children’s school lunch bags. His views do not necessarily reflect those of his employer.

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