Hybrid Car Question: Is My Car Defective?

2008 Nissan Altima Hybrid

2008 Nissan Altima Hybrid right front shot
The Altima coasts down a slight grade while pumping electricity back into the battery.

Adrian Gable

Hello Christine and Scott,

I was very relieved to find your pages under About.com and find out I could email you. A few weeks ago we purchased a 2008 Nissan Altima Hybrid and recently we noticed something that has us worried: the 'gasoline engine' kicks on a few seconds after starting the car and while the car is still in PARK. It stays on EV MODE for only the first few seconds. This is not what we expected! We thought (from research) that the high voltage battery would have total control at startup, low speeds, and when not moving (at a stop sign /red light). In other words, NO GASOLINE being used at these times. EV MODE the whole time! We also observed:

1. After we shift to 'D', DRIVE, it happens again every time the vehicle comes to a full stop while at a stop sign or red light and we're not moving for more than a few seconds.

2. The engine stays on for at least a minute and then shuts off, EV MODE resumes and all is quiet until I start moving and accelerating.

3. This behavior seems to happen when the engine is cold, in other words, when it hasn't been used for hours (e.g. first drive in the morning) and keeps happening for about 1/2 hour or so during that first drive. After 1/2 hour or so, this stops happening. In other words, the EV MODE sign comes on and STAYS ON the whole time the car is stopped (idle) at a stop sign/red traffic light or while the car is in PARK but still on. This is what we thought would ALWAYS happen!

4. There is one exception to what I just said in item 3 above. Today for the first time, while at a red light, and after the car went into EV MODE, the engine kicked on even though I had just driven the car for at least one hour at high speeds on highway.

Is something wrong with my car? I noticed on your website that you 'own' your own 2008 Nissan Hybrid. Please tell me what's happening with yours. At first my husband thought that this was due to the cold weather (under 40 degrees). But today, the temperature was at 48 degrees and it still didn't stay in EV MODE at startup. Please help. I am afraid this might be a defective car. Dora

PS. Yesterday I drove the car to the dealer and the salesperson that sold us the car told us that he has seen it happen before and that 'it is normal'. He even had me drive another hybrid (2007) that had not been sold yet and sure enough, seconds after the car started, the EV MODE signal disappeared and the engine started EVEN THOUGH I was still in park mode. I don't know whether to believe him or not. I also don't find any info on manual to either identify this behavior as normal or not normal.

Hey Dora,

Thanks for writing - good questions. We understand your concerns. No worries – it sounds as if your 2008 Altima Hybrid is working perfectly normally. Your husband is right - it does have a lot to do with the cold temperatures, and there actually are several conditions that will make the engine on your car run, regardless of your input. They are:

  • State of battery charge
  • Temperature of the engine and hybrid components
  • Ambient air temperature

When you start the car, it will usually start the engine after just a few seconds, even if it's been only a few hours since you've last driven it. The computer does this automatically to warm the engine, hybrid battery and associated hybrid components. Under mild weather conditions, the engine should shut off after just a few minutes, but when it’s colder out, it could take substantially longer—it also depends upon the amount of charge left in the hybrid battery. If it’s on the low side, the engine may continue running to charge the battery up to full capacity. Also, and this is especially true in the winter (and if you are using the heater and/or the defroster a lot), the engine will run longer. The engine has to run to warm the cabin—and the higher you have the heat set (and the longer it’s on), the more the engine will run. If you have electrically heated seats, using those can help minimize the need to heat the cabin air as much, thus minimizing the engine running time also. Even if you are stopped for a minute or more at a traffic light and the car is in EV mode, if any of these conditions come up (low battery, car needing heat), the engine will start. Again, all of this is normal.

You’ll notice as we get into spring and early summer (and you won’t be needing the heat/defroster as much), everything will come up to operating temperature quicker and the Altima Hybrid will stay in EV mode much longer. In the summertime when it gets really hot and you’re using the AC a lot, you could notice that it runs the engine more. The AC compressor runs off electricity, so you may find the engine kicks on more often to keep the battery charged.

Just bear in mind that this is a hybrid electric car and is reliant upon the gasoline engine to keep the entire system up and running. Even though you can drive in electric mode, it’s still more of an assistant than a main power source. Your Altima uses Toyota’s Synergy Drive System—in our opinion, it is the best one available. As you get used to this car, we bet you’ll not only be able to maximize the EV mode driving (and fuel economy), but come to love it as well.

For your reference, here’s an article we wrote about hybrids and cold temps, and some info about obtaining the best mileage from your hybrid via hypermiling. (Yep, Scott hypermiled in the Altima Hybrid—look what it can do.

Thanks for visiting our site and writing—please feel free to let us know if you have any more questions.

Best regards, Christine & Scott