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.

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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