2009 Fall Auto Guide
New quandary: Buying a used hybrid

Forget about poking under the hood

Another issue for used hybrid shoppers is their inability to pop open the hood and examine and yank 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 -- all of that poking, prodding and examining -- well, 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. "You can't do that on the hybrid, not safely anyway."

In addition, most modern vehicles now utilize plastic covers or shields to make engines appear more aesthetically pleasing and/or to better control airflow, and you might not be able to see the critical components.

Taking the car for a test drive also will not tell you much if you are unaccustomed to driving a hybrid, Goss says. The telltale sounds that indicate a problem with a 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.

"Frankly, 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.

Is the certified, pre-owned hybrid your best option?

Kolz and Olson concur that "factory-certified" hybrid vehicles represent the best option for the first-time, used hybrid buyer. Not only do such vehicles come with warranty protections, they also can spare shoppers the grief of buying a hybrid car from a less than truthful private seller.

To attract new buyers to the used hybrid market, Toyota launched its own Toyota Certified Used Hybrid program in January. Each Toyota certified hybrid vehicle undergoes 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 3-month/3,000-mile warranty on its used cars.

A certified used Honda hybrid vehicle undergoes a 150-point inspection and it will come with a 12-month/12,000-mile warranty. "This warranty is available on any used Honda vehicle that's six years old and under (and) that has less than 80,000 miles on the odometer," Kolz says.

Sometimes car dealers will offer their own certification program in lieu of a manufacturer's certification program, but Olson encourages car shoppers to seek out only those vehicles backed by a manufacturer certification. "When you get a warranty from Toyota, well, we're still going to be in business years from now ... whereas dealer warranties might be backed by some third party with questionable financial security and longevity," he says.

In addition, with a factory used car-certification program such as Toyota's, buyers might enjoy the added advantage of getting new car financing rates on their used hybrid, Olson says. "If you can get new car financing on a car that could be three years old, that could be a home run," he says.

Buying used vs. new: Do the math before deciding

Many consumers are unaware of the difficult market that new hybrids are in and mistakenly pay a huge premium on a used vehicle, Goss says.

"With all of the dealer incentives, factory rebates, and tax breaks that are currently being offered on new hybrid vehicles coupled with the not inconsiderable advantages of special financing offers and lower monthly payments … you could actually be better off buying a new hybrid," he says. "The difference in terms of payments and debt-load might not be that great in the end."

So, before you commit to a used or new hybrid, run the numbers to make sure that you buy the car that affords you the best bang for your buck. You might discover you can afford to buy a new hybrid on a used hybrid budget.


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