Hybrid Cars, Your Time has Come

Hybrid cars are more popular then ever. What you should know before you buy.
Last Updated 01/19/2017

The used car market is something millions of people participate in every year. In the U.S., thousands of cars are sold on the secondary market every day. A growing percentage of those cars are hybrids. To be more precise, they are hybrid-electric or gasoline-electric hybrids.

Hybrid-electric cars first appeared on the U.S. market in 1999 with the Honda Insight followed by the Toyota Prius. The Prius has gone on to become a name synonymous with gasoline-electric hybrids (often just called "hybrids") and is the hybrid consumers are most likely to associate with hybrid vehicles or spot on the road or on dealer lots. Although we will often refer to the Prius in this article, the points we make will be usable with any used hybrid car you are interested in purchasing.

Start With the Basics

Buying any used car means starting with the basics. You need to know the car's history on several fronts. Your CARFAX Vehicle History Report, of course, will tell you much of your car's history, including where it was first registered, where it was registerd last, whether it has any open recalls or factory-backed warranties are still active. You can also see if any damage or accidents have been reported to CARFAX. From your Carfax report, you'll know ownership history, which will give you a general idea of where it's been driven. As more service centers report information to CARFAX, the CARFAX report may also show you how well the car was maintained. The rest you can learn either from the seller or by looking at the car carefully yourself or with the help of a mechanic.

If possible, you should always have a used car inspected by a trusted mechanic before you buy. You should also always take it for a test drive – the longer, the better – to determine whether it's really the car for you and to see if you can note any issues it may have. Most "temporary fixes" to cover problems become apparent after a few minutes of driving and careful, close scrutiny.

Be sure to sight down the sides of the car to note any waviness or change in the body panels, which may indicate a poorly-done repair job. Open the hood and inspect the engine for cleanliness, fluid levels (and cleanliness), and any visible damage or obvious recent repairs. Have your mechanic put the car on a lift and inspect the undercarriage and suspension systems for signs of serious wear or potential damage. Look at the interior and note where cover-up signs might be occurring, such as the use of marker to cover cigarette burns, waviness in the headliner that indicates it's been removed or pulled out of the way for some reason, and so forth. Carefully check the instrument cluster for signs it may have recently been removed, which may be a sign of odometer fraud. Have your mechanic run a check of the car's computer for error codes and, if possible to find out of the odometer has been changed electronically.

Finally, just be sure that this car is right for you and your lifestyle. Most hybrids are small to midsize vehicles and may not be the right size or configuration for what you need. High fuel economy is a selling point, sure, but if the vehicle isn't going to fit your lifestyle because it's too cramped or doesn't have enough ground clearance for the roads you often drive on (or the transition from road to driveway), this probably isn't the car for you.

Hybrid-specific Checks for the Used Hybrid Buyer

There are a few things to check that are unique to hybrid cars that would not be in a standard gasoline vehicle or fully electric vehicle. Some of these will depend on the specific type of hybrid powertrain involved (not all gasoline-electric hybrids are designed exactly the same, after all). A plug-in hybrid (or PHEV) will also have different considerations from a parallel or series hybrid. Knowing what type of hybrid you're dealing with is important, so study the car before you go see it and find out how, exactly, it works. There are hundreds of videos and articles online regarding every hybrid you might find on a used car lot, so just search and explore.

Most hybrids being sold will be of the parallel hybrid type, which has the engine and electric motor working in unison to propel the car most of the time (though they can operate independently as well). This is how the Toyota Prius, Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, and other hybrids usually work. By contrast, a series hybrid, such as the Chevrolet Volt, has the electric and combustion units working separately and is often referred to as an extended-range electric vehicle (ER-EV) because it is primarily an electric car for which the engine acts as a generator.

In all cases, the hybrid car will have a battery, electric motor(s), regenerative braking, and sophisticated electronics and computer controls for their operation. The battery will have a specific lifespan, depending on its chemistry (aka "type"), while the regenerative braking will mean that brakes require fewer service intervals because they should last longer due to the electric motor(s) acting as brakes to regenerate electricity for use later.

It's important that you understand the life expectancy of the hybrid car's battery. Most have many years of warranty and an expected lifespan of years beyond that point, so unless the used hybrid car you're considering is very old, this is not likely of serious concern. Most used car warranties for hybrid cars will cover battery issues as well. Warranties vary from about 8 years to 10 or more. Expect the battery in most hybrid cars to last at least 150,000 miles and be aware that if replacement will be needed, it will cost between $2,000 and $5,000 to buy and replace new batteries on most hybrid cars. The good news is that most hybrids are not as dependent on their batteries as are purely electric cars, so replacement may not be imminent if there are problems with the battery, but a bad battery in your hybrid will mean far lower fuel economy until it's replaced.

A good indicator of how hard the hybrid car has been driven, though, are the brakes. Under normal use, a hybrid car with regenerative braking should require brake replacement only rarely, perhaps half or a third as often as on a standard gasoline vehicle. If maintenance records for your hybrid contender include frequent brake jobs, the car may have been driven hard by its previous owner. It's a good indication that the car should be avoided or deeply discounted as it likely has other issues that are waiting in the wings.

Test-driving a Used Hybrid

The test drive is where the used car buying experience all comes to a "buy or walk away" decision for most buyers. Driving a hybrid car for the first time might mean you're getting overwhelmed by the unique driving experience a hybrid offers and not noticing the other things you might see were it not a hybrid. Be sure to take enough time to acclimate to the hybrid driving experience so you'll become comfortable and start noticing the little things that may or may not add up for you in your decision.

Doing the Math

Finally, before you buy, make sure that it makes economic sense for you to do so. Of course, all used cars have pros and cons for their adoption when it comes to your checkbook, but the primary appeal of a hybrid is its potential fuel savings. Remember that as when they were new, used hybrid cars often have a "hybrid premium" built into their price. This may or may not be offset by the market, depending on how many of the particular hybrid you're considering are available for sale. In general, the lowest-cost used hybrid car will be a Prius because that vehicle has more than any other out on the road (it's the best-selling hybrid car).

Most of the time, though, you'll find that a used hybrid car, if reasonably priced as a fit for your lifestyle, will be more economically viable over the longer term than is a new one or a standard gasoline vehicle.