2009 Winter Auto Guide
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Hybrid quandary: How to buy used

"We've had some problems, electrical problems, but these have had to do more with the vehicles' wiring and nothing to do with the battery itself. This technology has been on the market since the 1990s, so we're not talking about a technology that's new and which needs to have all the kinks worked out of it," says Bruce Kolz, general manager of David Hobbs Honda in Glendale, Wis.

In fact, the biggest battery-related concern has little to do with the robustness and longevity of the hybrid battery cell. It has to do with the "envelope" surrounding it, Goss says.

As with a vehicle's other key components, the batteries can be vulnerable in a collision.

"That's about the only situation in which we actually see damage being done to these batteries," Goss says.

Don't bother looking under the hood

Forget about examining and pulling on wires, connectors and other under-hood components to determine whether they are tight, corrosion-free and undamaged.

"The things that you could once normally do on a vehicle in the past? You just can't do that in the engine bay of a hybrid because you are dealing with voltages of over 330 volts," Goss says. "Not safely anyway."

A test-drive won't tell you much, either, unless you're accustomed to driving a hybrid, Goss says. The telltale sounds that indicate a problem with a hybrid vehicle are markedly different from those of a standard car. Only a trained hybrid technician is able to tell which of these sounds is abnormal.

"If I was seriously considering buying a used hybrid, I would find a reputable and competent mechanic who specializes in servicing hybrid vehicles -- one who is impartial to the sale -- and I would pay the $60 to $120 to have that vehicle thoroughly checked out," says Goss.

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Is certified preowned your best option?

Kolz and Olson concur that "factory-certified" hybrid vehicles represent the best option for the first-time, used hybrid buyer.

Toyota launched its Certified Used Hybrid program in January 2009, putting each car through a 160-point inspection of all internal and external components, plus an additional 14-point inspection of the vehicle's hybrid components.

"We will only certify used hybrid vehicles with less than 85,000 miles from the current model year to six years back," Olson says. "Our cars are reconditioned and put back into as close to new condition as possible, and we will not certify for sale any vehicle that fails to pass a Carfax check." Also, Toyota gives a comprehensive three-month/3,000-mile warranty on its used cars.

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