Used car buyers face a new quandary: How to buy a used hybrid

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.

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.

“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.

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.

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.

Under Toyota’s used-car certification plan, a buyer may also get new-car financing rates on their used hybrid, Olson says. “If you can get new car financing on a car that could be 3 years old, that could be a home run,” he says.

Do the math

Many consumers are unaware of the difficulties manufacturers are having selling new hybrids and mistakenly pay a huge premium on used vehicles, Goss says.

“With all of the dealer incentives, factory rebates, and tax breaks that are currently being offered on new hybrid vehicles coupled with … 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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