By on December 17, 2009

Perhaps you’ve seen the advertisement: an Optima battery survives the rigors of a demolition derby, then goes into the vehicle taking it’s owner home. But is it pure advertising hyperbole or is there something to the claim? To find out I tested the Optima Red Top and Yellow top batteries in situations ranging from daily-driving to that demolition derby-in-denial, the 24 Hours of LeMons.

Geek Alert: while conventional lead-acid batteries use (fragile) lead plates suspended in vats of acid, the Optima has lead wound into a spiral tube.  Optima’s design is inherently stronger, thus more resistant to vibration, especially in off-road applications.  The design also allows a more pure grade of lead and there’s a fiberglass mat to hold the electrolyte gel against the lead. Fantastic.

In reality, it works. TTAC’s race car for the 24hrs of LeMons uses my leftover Optima “Red Top” battery, doing very well under the rigors of race use. Proof positive was our electrical nightmare: the reinforced battery tray that dislodged itself from the rusty fender. With our luck, the car’s good vibrations let battery hold down (metal) meet the positive cable. Then they became friends. Such good friends, in fact, they welded themselves together and cooked several underhood wires.  But the Optima survived the ordeal, where a normal battery would have exploded.

But why did I donate a functional Optima to the LeMons car?  Again, geek alert: my Lincoln Mark VIII (a car known for charging problems as they age) had bizarre charging characteristics after 2 years of use with a Red Top, even with significant upgrades over OEM. It worked until it’s second Houston summer made the car’s voltage fluctuate several tenths in stop/go traffic.  Fearing more problems (been there, done that), I proactively switched to a conventional battery and netted rock-solid charging after 2+ years of daily commuting. I discussed this with an Optima product guru: he suggested the problem is unique to my car.  Frankly, after many hours of wrenching, I suspect he’s right.

I had two other negative Red Top experiences, one from vehicles in storage for 6-12 months, unable to take a trickle charge afterwards.  Optima says this is a common problem, but it’s the battery charger’s fault. In their words:

If an OPTIMA is deeply discharged (below 10.5 volts) most basic chargers will not supply a charge. Also keep in mind an OPTIMA will not recharge properly if treated as a regular flooded or gel battery. To charge the battery, you can wire a second fully charged automotive battery (12+V) to the discharged AGM in parallel (+ to + and – to –). Then hook up the charger to either battery, setting the charger at 10 amps. Leave for two hours, monitoring frequently. During this process if the discharged battery gets very hot or if it is venting (hissing sound from vents) then stop this process immediately. When the discharged battery reaches 10.5 volts or more, remove the standard battery and continue charging the AGM until fully charged.

For normal charging a relatively low current, such as one or two amps can work well, but when the battery has been deeply discharged, some sulfation of the battery plates may have occurred. If you charge at 10 amps, the higher current will help to break up this sulfation. If you have an automatic charger, let it run until the charger indicates charging is complete. If you have a manual charger, you can get a rough estimate of the charging time in hours of a completely discharged battery (11.2V) by multiplying the capacity (amp hours or Ah) of the battery by 1.2. If your battery is not completely discharged the time would be less.

In most cases these steps will recover the AGM battery. It’s okay for the AGM battery to get slightly warm during the charging process. If it’s hot to the touch it means there’s a short and the process should be discontinued.

A fancier charger like a CTEC should work fine, but that’s not all: I had a (daily driven) Optima Red Top fail on the 36th month of its 36 month warranty.  The car’s charging system is in excellent condition, but the battery couldn’t start the car after sitting overnight.  While the free replacement works flawlessly for 2+ years, this was disappointing considering Optima’s premium pricing.

And there’s that: Optima Red Tops are about $150, roughly $50 more than a conventional battery with a similar warranty.  The Yellow Top, with its superior “deep cycle” capabilities often retails for an extra $20 over the Red Top.  And Optima supplied a Yellow Top for TTAC’s project car, a Cadillac Fleetwood Limo in dire need of a new battery, alternator and so much more.

Long story short: the Yellow Top worked flawlessly while diagnosing, wrenching and cranking (endlessly cranking) the Caddy’s pathetic motor. Not to mention providing hours of entertainment to passers by at the 24 Hours of LeMons, thanks to the Yellow Top’s deep reserve against the Limo’s extensive interior lighting, BOSE audio and power-hungry load-leveling suspension.  The Yellow Top is designed to handle long periods of usage, resisting failure after repeated discharges. My time with the Limo proved it. I am happy with this battery’s short-term performance: like the race car’s Red Top, this is the ideal partner for a Limo.

But what about the average car of your average TTAC reader?  Even with Optima’s clear engineering superiority, I don’t see their performance gains worth the higher asking price.  My negative experiences with the Red Top aside, this product isn’t a good value for your daily driver. Non-street legal toys and high-current applications are a different story.

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31 Comments on “Product Review: Optima Batteries...”


  • avatar
    porschespeed

    They are also very useful if you have a scenario where you need to mount a battery a something other than the standard angle – you can mount them standing on end, at a tortured angle, or whatever suits your need.

    Don’t forget they can survive being shot… several times…

     

  • avatar

    I also use an Optima in my vintage car, as this car has a monocoque and tube frame construction, and the battery rests right on a critical junction between those front tubes and the rear monocoque.  The last thing I need is acid eating away at the juncture.

    I have killed one Optima though when my Lucas voltage regulator failed. (I’ve since replaced the Lucas alternator with a Hitachi and bypassed the external regulator.) Rather than worrying about trickle charging issues I just disconnect the battery when the car is parked.
     
     
     

  • avatar
    EEGeek

    You may be right about it not being wirth the money for normal use, but I’m a fan of the Red Top after my last one went 9 years before it finally had trouble holding a charge.  The safety aspects are gravy to me.  The original conventional battery lasted 3 years.  For the difference in cost, I’ll pay for the Optima, but only if I plan on hanging onto the car until the wheels fall off, which is what I typically do.

  • avatar
    MBella

    They are also heavier than a standard battery.  In my opinion, they are worth it only in the cases were it is usefull to mount it in an unuasuall position like porchespeed said, or crazy things like off road buggies and demolition cars. I just don’t see it being worth it in other cases. I can buiy a good 3 year free replacemnt battery at Meijer for about $75. It’s just not worth it in most circumstances.

    • 0 avatar
      Dr. Kenneth Noisewater

      AGM are _excellent_ for motorcycles.. My BMW had the BMW stocker which was ‘gel’ at the time (I believe BMW stock batts are now AGM), and it couldn’t take a hi-amp quick charger, it would lose charge when stored rather quickly, and was otherwise junk.

      AGMs will store better, and you can use a proper hi-amp quick charger on them without damaging them. I <3 my WestCo bike batt.

    • 0 avatar
      ChesterChi

      I have also had good experiences with WestCo AGM motorcycle batteries. The one in my Aprilia Scarabeo 150 scooter is over 5 years old and works like new. The one in my Suzuki DRZ400S also works great. And WestCo has good prices with free shipping.

  • avatar
    geggamoya

    I’ve had a Yellow Top in my Focus for about two years i think. I got it while my Webasto still worked and i had a sub in the boot. Then i got old and removed the sub. And the Webasto stopped working.  Battery works fine though. It’s just all the wiring that’s crap.
    The voltage is a bit erratic also, if i turn on the window heaters(the windshield especially needs a lot of juice) and seat heaters and the car is cold, voltage drops to something around 11.5 on idle. stays over 14v at 2000rpm and over. And if i turn them all off really quickly it jumps up to over 15v for a second.  Voltage regulator?

  • avatar
    Hippo

    They were better years ago. Not sure what changed.
     
    We subject them to extremely heavy use in Jeeps, especially when using winches.
     
    The trick battery to have these days is the Platinum AGM from Sears. Not sure who makes it, but it works well both for starting and deep cycle.

    • 0 avatar
      cdotson

      DieHard Platinum batteries are branded EnerSys Odyssey batteries:
       
      http://www.odysseybattery.com/batteries.html
       
      They’re AGM just like Optima, but plate instead of spiral wound so there is more plate area for a given battery footprint.  They’re all intended to be deep-cycle but do deliver enough burst current for starting use.

  • avatar
    educatordan

    Forget the batteries, lets get some some updates on the Fleetwood!

    But yeah the Opitma is on my shopping list for my next “car I plan to keep forever.”

    • 0 avatar

      The Fleetwood 75 is still a steaming pile of HT4100 crap.  Will probably tackle the tasks addressed in Piston Slap after the Christmas holidays. Best thing about it (to most people) is the Optima Yellow Top under the hood.

  • avatar
    cnyguy

    I see no real advantage for most applications- the OEM Motorcraft in my truck lasted from 1996 to 2006 and I live where the temp goes from 100 F to -20F. It still started the truck when I replaced it on general principles. The deep cycle batteries for my camper have likewise lived way beyond what is considered normal. The key to battery life is to remember that most batteries don’t die- they are killed by a variety of factors from poor maintenance, using a cheapass ‘taper charger’, and drawing them down below critical voltage. AGM batteries do resist such abuse better than flooded lead acid (FLA) cells, but if you take care of it, a FLA will last just as long at less cost.

    • 0 avatar
      escapenguin

      Keep in mind that Motorcraft batteries are very heavy duty.  You can tell by how heavy they are.  I only had a couple we couldn’t resuscitate.  I would consider them to be in a class of their own.

  • avatar
    Ion

    My Interstate battery has been very good, I think their made by the same company as the Optima, but they’re cheaper. The Diehard in my first car that now calls my Dad’s car home has been very good as well. I’d defiently go to one of those two brands when I need a new battery.

  • avatar
    John Horner

    I agree with those who say that for normal applications the Optima batteries mostly excel at taking a few more dollars from the buyer’s pocket. I do, however, have friends who swear by them in their collector/fun cars due to reduced risk of acid damage and reportedly lower self-discharge rates.

  • avatar
    newcarscostalot

    My neighbors have an old Die Hard battery that wont die. Of course now that I say this out loud the battery will bite the dust…

  • avatar
    mfgreen40

    I just removed the original bat from my 01 Silverado, close to 9 yrs. of service.

  • avatar
    StephenT

    I crossed these off my list when they moved their manufacturing from Colorado to Mexico.
    Link here: http://cbs4denver.com/local/Optima.Batteries.aurora.2.874937.html

    Hippo- Will check out the Sears AGM

  • avatar
    escapenguin

    I’ve had a Red Top in my Saturn SL1 since 2003.  I splurged on it after seeing how terrible conventional batteries were… basically all day long we had customers coming in and exchanging batteries barely two years old, and the only Optimas we had returned were from kids overloading them with their “systems.”
    It was a tight fit, but it’s been in the same place ever since.  A+ #1, would do business with again.

  • avatar
    Whuffo2

    Something that doesn’t get mentioned is the little detail about battery charging voltage.  Different battery cell technologies also have differing charge requirements.  It’s only a few tenths of a volt but it makes a huge difference in battery performance and lifetime. Back in the bad old days of mechanical voltage regulators it was possible to tweak the charge voltage to the right number. Modern cars have fixed electronic voltage regulators that are calibrated to the type of battery that was supplied with the car.
    Using an AGM battery in a car that was designed to charge a lead/calcium plate (maintenance free) battery is marginal – depending on the tolerance of the regulator it might be OK or the battery may never reach full charge – this will greatly shorten its life. Putting an AGM battery in an older car designed for good old lead plate batteries is unlikely to be satisfactory – it’ll never reach full charge and it’ll die at a very young age from sulfation.
    If you need a battery that can withstand a bunch of vibration and keep on working then an AGM battery will do that and the shorter life may be worth it. But for your average car or truck the absolute best reliability and longest service will be obtained from the same type of battery the vehicle came with – as long as it’s a good quality battery. There’s two major manufacturers of auto batteries in the USA and only one of them turns out a consistently good product – buyer beware!

  • avatar
    Dimwit

    I think it’s Johnson Controls that everyone is searching for. Problem is, which batteries do they make? For the large names different models can be different, even different batch numbers. It pays to check.

    • 0 avatar

      They also make WalMart’s NeverStart battery…I mean EverStart. They seem like decent units.
      Though I have issues with WalMart overall, there’s something to be said about their ability to warranty a bad battery across the country at damn near any time of the day.  You simply cannot do that anywhere else.

  • avatar
    danms6

    When my OEM battery died, I took the plunge on an Optima Yellow.  It provided the higher starting power I needed and holds a longer charge than the Red.  Not to mention it’s smaller and much lighter than my standard battery was.  So far it hasn’t missed a beat with the temperatures dropping and it seems to be worth the price premium in any higher-performance application.

    • 0 avatar
      Contrarian

      I recently bought a yellow-top as a backup power supply (via an inverter) for my house. I have only used it for a couple of hours to power some lights and a wood-burner fan during an outage.

  • avatar
    mkirk

    I can 1 up the demolition derby claim with respect to Optima batteries.  I am a U.S. army Combat Engineer.  As such my current job is to drive around Baghdad in different vehicles looking for IED’s.  Upon my units arrival I was looking over the vehicles on which our lives would depend for the next year.  When looking at the Husky, a single seat interrogation vehicle noted to be the most survivable in our arsenal, I saw it was equipped with what appeared to be Optima batteries.  I asked the mechanics about this and they said they were.

    The batteries were grey, but I assume them to be based on the Yellow top as this vehicle can be set up with magnetic detector heads that when operating require the alternator to be switched off.  As such the battery would need to be able to withstand deep discharge and recharge cycles.

    Anyway, fast forward to a few nights ago.  I am in this Husky examining a suspicious object when said suspicious object explodes.  The battery compartment is covered by a heavy steel door, which was blown completely off along with several other heavily armored parts.

    Upon our return to base the list of replacement parts was lengthy.  But not included on the list was batteries.

    So do I need them in my Miata?  Probably not, but it is good to know that if I do put one in it will probably be the toughest component in the car.

  • avatar
    Oregon Sage

    I use an Optima in the CC 1951 Olds. It was the best 6 volt battery I could find. After 2 years it still works great. All I do to ‘maintain’ it is make sure I take the beast for a drive every month. Starts right up every time.

  • avatar
    golden2husky

    I will be in the market for a replacement for my 8 year old Motorcraft battery,  and have started thinking about replacements.  I have no problem spending more for an upgrade provided that in my mind, the upgrade provides a service that is worth having for the application.  I don’t need exceptional vibration resistance so I am not really sure that $150 plus is money well spent for me.  I usually buy Diehard “Gold” series batteries and they routinely return a 7 to 8 year life.  On sale, Diehards are often well under $100.  The business case for Optima doesn’t seem to work for me.  The abandonment of America for Mexico is the icing on the cake.

  • avatar

    Interesting side note: The Optima red top is OEM equipment in the 2005-2006 Ford GT supercar. Are there any other OEM applications for these batteries?

  • avatar

    Through all my friends, advertisement and forums have tried using the Optima Battery and it was good for a while and delivered.. what was a very upsetting experience was that I bought this through a Autozone Automotive store back in mid-summer 2008 and it was only this July when I returned from a family event back in Oahu for a month that my battery did not want to start nor retain a charge. Sad to say that I’ve tried to deal with it for a month by driving my car around for several hours till I decided to take it in to Autozone for their free service of recharging the battery. Their system usually charges the battery in about a few hours but I left mine from Saturday till Wednesday to let it have more time on the charger as advised by the store manager, the longer the better. Upon returning back to the store to retrieve my battery, it continued to stay charged at less then 30 percent. When I called the company for any help or hope of a warranty resolution in which I was just shy two month past the deadline, they only stood by their 1 yr. warranty, which is sad to say that for a company who claims on their batteries to be at the top of the list of choices, they have a poor warranty which is just money down the drain. I’d save the trouble and stick with the Duralast Batteries which offer either a 2yr/3yr free replacement or if past those years a secondary 7 year replacement at 30% of the cost. That’s my honest opinion.


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