2009 Winter Auto Guide
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Hybrid quandary: How to buy used

Hunting for a used hybrid can confound even a seasoned used-car shopper. The time-honored ritual of kicking tires, checking the clarity of the oil on the engine's dipstick and looking under the vehicle for leaks won't tell a potential buyer all there is to know.

Despite being a relatively new technology, hybrids have earned a reputation as trouble-free new cars. But because they have only been in showrooms for a decade and really only purchased in real numbers for five or six years, there is limited history as far as what sort of value they represent as used vehicles.

As hybrid popularity grows, more will be available and more used-vehicle shoppers will consider them. And because the value of any car drops significantly the moment it becomes a used car, a careful shopper may end up owning a gently used hybrid vehicle with the balance of an original factory warranty. If the car is "certified preowned" by the manufacturer, all the better.

Safe to buy a used hybrid?

Does buying a used hybrid make sense when new vehicles aren't exactly flying out of dealer showrooms, despite lucrative factory rebates, generous financing offers, dealer incentives and discounts? For new hybrids there's also an income tax credit of up to $3,000, depending on the carmaker's hybrid production levels in the U.S.

"Although they are significantly different in a number of ways, hybrid vehicles really aren't all that different from other used cars, so most of the same used car-shopping rules still apply," says Pat Goss, master technician of PBS' "MotorWeek" and host of the radio program, "Goss' Garage."

"The engine is still an engine even though it uses a different cycling principle," Goss says. "The maintenance requirements are similar but much more stringent."

Consequently, buyers should carefully scrutinize any available maintenance paperwork for the car. It will tell you whether the vehicle's maintenance schedule was followed correctly and will spell out what procedures were done, what parts were replaced and what specific fluids were changed.

It's also critical to run a complete Carfax Vehicle History Report on the vehicle, says Norm Olson, sales operations manager of the Toyota Certified Used Vehicles program in Torrance, Calif. A Carfax report will tell you if a vehicle was ever stolen, recalled or salvaged. It will provide you with a complete listing of the vehicle's previous owners, note any failed vehicle inspections and alert you to any potential disparities in terms of odometer readings.

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Battery matters

Because a hybrid is powered by an electric motor drawing energy from an electric battery pack, as well as a gasoline engine, the longevity of the battery pack is a concern. The current average replacement cost of a battery pack is around $3,000, according to About.com.

To date the news about battery pack reliability and longevity is reassuring.

Ford and Toyota, for example, have had hybrid vehicles that have accumulated mileage over the 100,000-mile mark without any failures of the hybrid battery system. And all new hybrids come with a battery pack with an average eight-year/80,000-mile warranty which stays with the vehicle and is transferable, Olson says.

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