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Hybrid Owners Get Service at Dealerships

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DETROIT (AP) _ With Ford Motor Co.'s Escape hybrid sport utility vehicle due out this summer, the automaker is training thousands of mechanics at dealerships around the country how to service them.

The fuel-efficient vehicle, which has both a traditional gas-powered motor and an electric motor, isn't vastly different from its standard Escape counterpart.

But while service stations can rotate the tires, fix the brakes and change the oil, owners need to visit the dealerships for anything that requires mechanics to analyze or fix problems under the hood. And in many cases, independent auto mechanics don't want to touch hybrid vehicles.

For now, it's not an issue for most owners because warranties protect the cars for many years. But some owners fear the end of the warranty because they won't have the option of taking their car to independent auto repair shops, which typically offer lower prices for repairs than the dealerships.

Dean Rudie of Minneapolis has more than 80,000 miles on his Toyota Prius and hasn't had any problems with his car other than a bad accelerator pedal assembly. But he is eyeing the end of his 100,000-mile battery warranty with some trepidation.

``I called the dealer and found out it will cost $6,320 to replace the huge, 110-pound battery,'' said Rudie, 53. ``This has given me pause.''

The dealership mechanics ``are the only people I know that know anything about working on'' the hybrids, said Henry Lister, 50, a Chapel Hill, N.C., resident who owns a 2001 Toyota Prius. ``My mechanic said, `It looks like fun, but I'm not working on it.'''

Bill Oddo, a Toyota technician, said the main difference between working on a Prius and a standard sedan is working around the high-voltage cables. A regular car battery carries 12 volts. A Prius battery sends out more than 270 volts, enough to stop a heart.

There are various reasons why independent mechanics aren't venturing into the hybrid repair business.

While instructions are available via the Internet or through written materials, training is being offered only to Ford, Toyota and Honda dealership technicians and some fleet partners.

Even so, being trained to work on one car wouldn't necessarily translate to the others. Honda uses an entirely different hybrid system than Ford and Toyota. Moreover, the systems feature unique software running more than a dozen computers _ the heart of the hybrids' operation.

The limited number of hybrid owners also makes the investment in research and time to train not worthwhile, said Ray Romayo, part owner of Auto Laboratory in Troy, Mich.

Despite rapid growth of hybrid owners and more than a dozen new models in the works, the number of hybrid owners is a tiny fraction of the total car market. U.S. registrations for hybrid vehicles rose to 43,435 last year, a 25.8 percent increase from 2002, according to recent figures from R.L. Polk & Co., the Southfield, Mich.-based firm that collects and interprets automotive information. Overall, 16.7 million vehicles were sold in 2003.

Ford spokeswoman Angela Coletti said new Escape owners shouldn't need to go anywhere but the dealer for several years.

While it may be inconvenient for customers to return to the dealer, it likely won't cost them more money because like the Toyota and Honda hybrids, hybrid portions of the Escape will be under warranty for eight to 10 years. Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford likely will offer free regular maintenance for some undetermined period.

Coletti said 2,500 Ford dealerships have signed up for its hybrid training course and more than 3,000 technicians already have undergone a 2 1/2-hour training course via satellite television. To become certified, the technicians must complete a two-day course in Dearborn. The 3,000 mechanics should complete their training by September.

Honda and Toyota say they've trained thousands of technicians in similar certification programs for their mechanics.
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