Rant: Our 2007 Honda Civic Hybrid (HCHII) troubles or how not to treat customers

Warning, long rant ahead!  As some of you know, we own a 2007 Honda Civic Hybrid, also called HCHII (second generation). Bought new, the car has been an absolute pleasure to drive, for about two years. And then all hell broke loose and  it’s been downhill since. In this post I intend to details my dealings with American Honda and the overall unhappiness with the situation. Where possible, I include screenshots or scans of the original documents.  I truly hope ACH will come to its senses and take care of the customers like myself, but if history is any indication it is not very likely.

The updated ending to this story is at the very end, if you want to skip to that. Otherwise read on!

 

So what is all this about?

HCHII  is a mild hybrid, sandwiching a thin “pancake” electric motor between the engine and the CVT transmission.  The engine is rather smallish 1.3L inline 4 rated at 93HP and 89lb-ft, while the electric motor is rated at 20HP and 76 lb-ft. Together they provide for a pretty peppy car as the motor fills in any torque gaps while the main engine spins up. Honda calls this system IMA (Integrated Motor Assist). The motor is powered from a high voltage NiMH battery pack mounted behind the rear seats. The pack is made of 132 D-size 5.5Ah cylindrical cells, welded into U-shaped sticks of 6  and then bolted together all in series.The car monitors individual sticks, and their temperatures but not individual cells.

This system worked pretty well for a few years.Then Honda started seeing a sizable percentage of cars with early battery failures, most likely due to pretty lenient initial battery management settings or overall system design deficiencies that allowed individual battery cells to get out of balance. So a mandatory software update 10- 34 was issued  in 2010 (at around 45k miles on the odometer of my car)  to “prevent further deterioration of battery pack”.

Honda update letter

Honda update letter

The first immediate result people noticed was that the battery was now being protected by being used a lot less. The update essentially trimmed the hybrid bits of the car and turned it into a slowish regular car dragging around a mostly useless battery pack. It would spend most of the time charging the battery and burning MORE fuel while at it. (As in getting the mileage from 45 or so mpg to barely 38 mpg). Seems like a rather nice way to protect the company’s pockets while draining ours, doesn’t it?

Where in the past the car would happily provide electric assist all the way till the battery pack got drained down, it was now limited to much shorter bursts. So suddenly people were left with a sluggish car that also was getting significantly lower mileage than just before the update. And of course no way existed to roll that back. Another “nice” feature was a “recal”, as it was called on the hybrid forums.  At seemingly random times, the car would decide that what it knows about battery’s state of charge is inaccurate, dump the battery gauge to zero and force charge to find the top. Oh, and this being a mild hybrid with a single motor/generator, if the battery was charging, there was no way to also provide electric assist to actually move the car. So what does the driver feel? At the most inappropriate times the car looses its pep and takes much longer to do basic tasks such as say merging into traffic or turning. Sounds like a bit of safety issue, doesn’t? If you were to search Youtube for ” Honda Civic Hybrid IMA problem”, you’d see countless videos showing the dreaded “recal” dance of the gauge. One by one the battery segments drop and the green charge bars appears. So not only the car is not getting electric help, it is also spending some of the gasoline energy to force charging the battery. It also became harder to slow it down. Normally, a large portion of car’s energy was captured by regenerative braking and fed back into the battery. With lower charge rate, less of that was occurring and more work got shifted to the regular brakes. So, once again, less of a hybrid, more of a mediocre car. Definitely a bait and switch.

Close call

One day coming from work on my usual route I entered a very steep interstate ramp. Behind, a huge tractor trailer rapidly approached, so I floored the gas pedal trying to go faster. Except the car did not. Instead it did its “recal dance” all the while preventing the battery from providing any assistance to actually moving the car out of the way of the truck behind. When the grill of the truck was nearly touching my rear bumper, the “recal” ended and I got a few seconds worth of electric assist to speedup.Talk about close call. I had to pull over and breathe for a bit to get my bearings back. And of course when I restated this story to the factory rep in the area all I got back was a bored look.

Whining around

I’ve dutifully reported my troubles to two local dealerships over the course of 2010-2012 only to hear back “car is operating as designed” or that fuel or tires were to blame:

December 2011

December 2011

March 2011 visit

March 2011 visit

March 2012 diagnostic

March 2012 diagnostic

In March of 2012 I did manage to get one of them to share the diagnostic information showing that I had 37% of battery left (after paying for diagnostics!)  In other words, if my car used to give me say one minute of electric assist, after the software update that was cut down to 30 seconds, and then battery capacity degradation cut it down to 10 seconds. (All numbers are arbitrary just to show the idea). In the industry, battery is considered spent when its capacity drops to 80% of original. In Honda’s world, 37% is perfectly dandy. After getting all the way to regional managers and not seeing much progress, I called ACH directly and got nowhere. I even provided this little pdf showing recals over the course of several months. When I started seeing similar complaints by multiple people on the hybrid forums, I joined them and filed complaints with NTSB as we did not consider the car to be safe any more. I’ve spoken with investigator, described my concerns and signed paperwork,

The NTSB complaint may be seen here:

NHTSA Database entry

NHTSA Database entry

The same database contains countless other complains very similar to mine. So far no investigation or recall resulted from them however. Next I tried BBB. After filling out all the paperwork, I was told the car was too old to qualify:

BBB responce

BBB responce

May 2014

At that point I got fed up and bought a Toyota Prius, relegating the Civic to short trips around the town. Fast forward to summer of 2014. One day I noticed that the car started with a cranking sound, as a regular ICE car would. Now, this car does have a starter but has never used in the years I’ve owned it. Instead you hear a whirl of the main motor and car comes to life. Not this time. I got very hopeful that the battery has finally reached the point where the car decided it was not fit to even start it and used the backup starter from the smaller 12V battery instead. So I cheerfully ran to the nearest dealer, blurted out that it now starts from the starter and can they please check my IMA battery. They did and told me it’s all fine:

Except this time I only had 29% battery left. When I asked why can’t I get a new one, the answer was the same as a few years back- “you need an IMA light and DTC codes stored” unless American Honda agrees to replace it. So on I go in a circle, calling ACH. And what do I hear there? “The dealership needs to decide that the pack needs replacement before ACH can do anything.” A nice circle of logic.

Technical details:

Let’s look at the snapshots from the Honda tools :

March 2012 diagnostics

March 2012 diagnostics

May 2014 diagnostics

May 2014 diagnostics

A few interesting tidbits we can see from there, besides the battery state of health dipping from 37% to 29%. Both the the continuous and momentary charge power limits (called Continuous Regenerate Power Limit and Momentary Regenerate Power Limit) dropped from 13.65kW to 6.5kW, confirming the subjective feeling that we now have a lot less “battery braking”.

Now what?

Warranty

Sure, you get 10 years 150k miles warranty in a CARB state such as NY. The problem is getting the manufacturer to actually honor it. As ACH has repeatedly stated to me directly and via the dealerships, an IMA light has to come on and battery trouble codes be present before anything can be done. In the absence of gross abnormality or system failure, the light will come on when battery is so worn out that a very small percentage is left (State of Health is somewhere under 20% according to the internet rumors). But here is the catch- that percentage is set in software by Honda (and could be adjusted with software upodates if so desired without me the end user even knowing) and that’s how this loop is closed. So if you are just above that magic number- good luck, “your car is operating as designed”. And since the latest firmware updates minimize the actual usage of the battery, you’ll be stuck in that “neverland” for  years, hopefully till the warranty runs out and ACH is off-the hook.

Do it yourself option

I am a reasonably handy person around high voltage and can take the pack apart and cycle/balance the cells. My problem is- the car is under warranty and should be taken care off by the manufacturer. It also means the car would be out of commission for a sizable time as the cells cycle. Some people went as far as installing a grid charger and topping off their battery packs daily but that’s where I’d get me a plug-in hybrid instead!

 Buy yourself option

Another option is to buy an overpriced refurbished pack from the dealership, or a new aftermarket pack with larger newer cells. Many vendors now exist- BumbleBee battery is one example

Dump the car option

This one keeps crossing my mind regularly. It also apparently caused many HCHII owners on the forums to become former ones and flock to Chevy Volts, Priuses and Leafs. On the other hand I paid good money for the car and feel seriously wronged by how Honda is treating me. Not to mention the car is a lot of fun to drive when it is actually working.

Conclusion

Multiple class action suits later Honda still sticks to its “wait till the IMA light turns on, we’ll replace your battery” line and  I am still driving the car that’s is drastically different than what I bought and paid for. With every software update some bits of original pep were taken out and never replaced. You’d think in the long run, taking care of the customers would’ve been a much cheaper thing to do, but no, short-term sighted bean counters win again. That’s why our second car is not a Honda and why their newer, redesigned products are not even entering consideration. At the rate things are trending, I am not likely to get the IMA light before the 10 years 150k warranty is up- nice job Honda, and a warning to potential buyers: You may be on your own.

Update 7/21/2014

The car now starts from the backup 12V starter every other time. In the 7 years of owning the car I have not heard that crank sound till very recently. This makes me worried it is now putting undue  stress on the tiny 12V battery that has to feed the starter motor. That whole system is designed to be a backup for very cold days when the IMA battery is low, not a daily starter. Called ACH again, was told I have to persuade the dealership there is a problem and they will happily fix it. There we go in a circle again.

Update 7/22/2014

Just got a call from a service manager at our dealership – they are ordering us a new battery!  Will update once that gets installed, but things are finally looking up!

Update 7/31/2014

The battery has been replaced! The car now behaves like it used to- IMA gauge stays in the upper half of the scale, acceleration assist lasts quite a bit and most importantly, when you lift off throttle some regen braking is now happening. Much better!

 

Resources:

 

5 thoughts on “Rant: Our 2007 Honda Civic Hybrid (HCHII) troubles or how not to treat customers

  1. Wow, reading all this almost makes me angry.

    How could a company possibly be so lame?!

    I mean, really? And, even though they are violating EPA rules and stuff, they still don’t fix the problem. It’s like everyone in the legal system caters to Honda. Oh wait, it’s because Honda has more money than you do …
    Our legal system is in REALLY poor shape.

    Things like this shouldn’t happen often, but I hear stories like this ALL THE TIME!

    Usable battery capacitor of 29%? What? That’s BELOW mediocre!

    And the worst thing is the safety hazard – it’s amazing how big corporations just shove crap like this under the rug. It’s like they’d choose money over life.

    I swear, if I ever become a CEO, you bet my company will be world-class…
    This is just unacceptable on all levels!

    Ugh, sorry for the rant … just HAD to get that out of me. And I’m sure you feel the same way!

    • I do wonder why they can get away with it- maybe in the light of VW’gate that gets a bit more attention. Theoretically they’ve been certified as a PZEV but when running on gas more of the time that changes, so emissions are higher

  2. Hi, You seem super informed on these cars so I’ll ask…I’m looking at a HCHI with a manual transmission with < 100k miles, all service records, one owner, and new IMA battery in 2010. Car is in great shape but my guess is it would be due for another IMA battery about now. Is there any way to output the IMA Useable Battery output you highlight above without a Honda scan tool?

    • AFAIK HCH1 had fewer issues than HCHII, so you may not have to deal with that but again I am only familiar with HCHII. There is no easy way to get at the battery life percentage, though a local dealer may be nice enough to read it and maybe check out the car while at it. An alternative would be to simply drive it for a bit watching the IMA indicator. With a healthy battery there will be sizable amount of time when the battery provides assist. It should also take a while to go from empty to full when charging. And of course, see what kind of MPG you are getting. Battery in trouble will drag it down quite a bit. Do keep in mind that EPA figures from the years these were made are highly optimistic. But I’d expect at least something over 40mpg if driven reasonably.

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