2009 Fall Auto Guide
New quandary: Buying a used hybrid

There's a whole new breed of cars showing up on used car lots and in classified ads these days -- and buying one is a lot tougher than kicking the tires and checking that the oil is clean.

You may have heard of them -- they're called hybrids. And while they've come to be known as pretty dependable new cars, very little history has been built up on them and few people have ever purchased a used one.

But as hybrids continue to grow in popularity and as time marches on, there will be more available and higher demand for them.

Meanwhile, it's common knowledge that buying a used car can be a great way to save some serious coin on a vehicle because of the huge depreciation on new vehicles in the first months and years.

If you're a careful shopper, you can end up owning a gently used vehicle that not only possesses the balance of an original factory warranty but also one that offers additional protections afforded by a manufacturer's "certification," an added pledge that the automaker stands behind the car.

What about a used hybrid?

What do you need to know to buy a used hybrid and how do you protect yourself from buying one with problems? Does buying a used one make sense at a time when new hybrids aren't exactly flying out of dealer showrooms, despite lucrative factory rebates, generous financing offers, dealer incentives and discounts? There's also an income tax credit of up to $3,400, 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, when shopping for a used hybrid, 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, 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.

It's also important to look at the vehicle's inspection report because that will give you an indication of its pre-sale condition. "In California, this inspection report is part of the process, and the consumer, by law, actually must be provided a copy of an inspection report so you can see what was done with the car," Olson says.

For those concerned about the longevity and robustness of hybrid battery technology, the news 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 8-year/80,000-mile warranty which stays with the vehicle and is transferable, Olson says.

"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. Generally, the hybrid battery is situated close to the rear bumper, and a rear-end collision has the potential to do damage to the battery.

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

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