If you've never driven a hybrid, that first test-drive can be somewhat of a shocker. Hybrids don't feel or sound the same as other cars.
They typically use electric power-assist steering, which is not as responsive as hydraulically assisted steering. Because the gas engine is usually fairly small and assisted by an electric motor, the sounds from the engine bay aren't the same. It can be difficult for the untrained to hear whether a hybrid's powertrain is making noises that signal the need for immediate maintenance or repairs. Additionally, some hybrids can be dead silent for the first few miles of driving because they are operating on electric motor power only.
Get an Independent Inspection
Because hybrids have a lot of complex control and powertrain technology, it's a good idea to find a competent hybrid mechanic to inspect a used model, especially if you are dealing with a private seller or are a first-time hybrid shopper.
Used hybrids sold by dealerships often come with warranties, especially if they are being sold under a manufacturer's certified pre-owned (CPO) program. But it's still not a bad idea to have an independent mechanic check things out.
Not all mechanics are capable of working on hybrids. It takes additional training to plow into the innards of a car that carries sufficient voltage to fry a water buffalo and has electric motors and other parts not found on a conventionally powered vehicle.
Most independent shops with trained hybrid mechanics post signs bragging about it. Many have mechanics who have completed the Auto Career Development Center's hybrid technician program.
Dealerships don't always have trained hybrid mechanics, so it's prudent, especially in regions where hybrids aren't plentiful, to ask a dealership whether it does have certified hybrid mechanics on duty.
Mild or Strong
One of the first things to know about those conventional, no-plug hybrids is that they come in two basic flavors: mild and strong.
Honda and the new General Motors "eAssist" hybrids use what's called a "mild" system. The electric motor is a secondary power source, augmenting the gas engine. The electric motor provides a boost when the car needs it for acceleration, passing and hill climbing. It's also there to instantly start the gas engine when it shuts down at idle. This automatic stop-start function is a key fuel-saving technology in conventional hybrids.
Most other hybrids use some form of the "strong" or "full" hybrid system that was initially developed by Toyota for its Prius. The batteries and electric motors in a strong hybrid are powerful enough to provide some all-electric range at start-up, although it's typically just a few miles. The strong approach also permits the use of a relatively small gas engine, thus providing better overall fuel economy than mild hybrids can attain.
Because they use bigger motors and batteries than mild hybrids, hybrids with strong systems typically cost more when new, and usually still command a higher price than comparably aged and equipped mild hybrids in the used market. But for that extra money you get better fuel efficiency.
Hybrid Battery Basics
Hybrids all use standard 12-volt automotive batteries to power their onboard electronics, but they use much larger and more expensive battery packs to power their electric motors.
Until recently, nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) was the chemistry of choice, and all hybrids used NiMH battery packs. Recently, though, some automakers have begun using lithium-ion batteries, which are much lighter but more expensive. Because of their tendency to get quite hot, lithium-ion batteries require complicated heat-management systems. Unless you are shopping for a 2011 model year or later used hybrid, chances are you'll be looking at models with nickel-metal hydride batteries.
Regardless of battery type, all hybrids come new with at least an eight-year/100,000-mile battery warranty. Models sold in California, the District of Columbia and 10 other states that have adopted the California zero-emissions vehicle mandate get an even longer battery warranty: 10 years or 150,000 miles. The zero-emissions vehicle rules require the extended hybrid battery warranty.
In most cases, that means the used hybrids you're looking at probably still will have some battery warranty remaining.
Hybrid Car Battery Replacement
Most hybrid makers claim that their cars' battery packs will be good for 10 years or more. There are lots of hybrid taxis in New York and San Francisco that have logged well in excess of 150,000 miles on the original batteries.
So battery life shouldn't be an issue, unless you are looking at a used hybrid car with close to 100,000 miles on the odometer, or expect to keep the car for many, many years.
If a replacement does become necessary, the costs aren't horrible. They're certainly nothing like the $10,000-$20,000 cost of replacing the battery in a pure electric car.
At the time of this article's writing, Toyota was selling replacement batteries for its 2004-'09 Prius models for less than $2,200. Honda sells replacement batteries for the 2005-'11 Civic hybrid for $1,700, which is down from $2,400 four years prior. Nissan has one of the most expensive replacement batteries: $4,900 for an Altima hybrid.
There are several aftermarket companies, including Denver's Mile Hybrid Automotive and Re-Involt Techologies of North Carolina, that sell hybrid replacement batteries for less than factory prices.
Whether ordering from the automaker or an independent, the final cost of a battery pack replacement will include shipping and installation, which can add $1,000 or more to the total.
If you are really adventurous, there also are numerous hybrid batteries available in automotive salvage yards, recovered from cars that were totaled in collisions. Make sure to check for fluid leaks, torn coverings, dents or other signs of damage, though, before writing a check for one.
Numbers Plentiful, Choices Limited
Just two companies, Honda and Toyota, have made most of the used hybrid cars, crossovers and SUVs. The majority bear a single nameplate: Prius. That's because Toyota's Prius is the best-selling hybrid by far in the U.S., accounting for about half of all hybrid sales since Day One, according to sales data compiled by Edmunds.com.
There now are about two dozen conventional hybrid models on the market, and almost every major automaker has one or more for sale. But many only started selling the gas-electric cars and trucks in the last two years. Those models don't have much presence in the secondhand car market yet.
Finding Used Hybrids
That means that while there are quite a few used hybrids on car lots and available through private-party sales, the most common for the next few years will be the Ford Escape Hybrid SUV, Honda Civic Hybrid, Lexus RX 400h SUV, Toyota Camry Hybrid, Toyota Prius and Toyota Highlander Hybrid SUV. Most of them fall in the 2004-'09 model years.
Edmunds.com's used hybrid and electric center provides capsule reviews of cars as well as specification and features lists and our True Market Value (TMV® for each model.
Edmunds' used car inventory finder can help you narrow the field by locating secondhand hybrids on sale at dealerships within a search radius that you set. For private-party sales, you can look to such sites as AutoTrader.
One Mechanic's Recommendations
For shoppers who want to play it safe, Coquillette recommends sticking with the most popular hybrids. But her advice is to avoid all first-generation models on the theory that it takes a generation for the automakers to work out the nastiest bugs in a new, technology-laden model.
Her preferred used hybrids are second-generation 2004-'09 Priuses, which she says are holding up well with fewer major mechanical or battery issues than other hybrids. She particularly noted problems Honda has had with its 2006-'08 Civic Hybrid battery reliability and performance.
The Prius isn't perfect, however. Coquillette says that many second-generation Priuses have a tendency to burn oil if the original owner wasn't diligent in getting oil changes at the recommended intervals. They don't leak oil, she says. They just burn it because carbon build-up from dirty oil prevents the piston rings from sealing properly.
Coquillette also suggests that whatever used hybrid model buyers pick, it is a good idea to look for cars with mileage in the 30,000-50,000 range if battery replacement cost would present an issue to the buyer. But if its other parts are in good working order, a cheap high-mileage used hybrid and a replacement battery might also fill the bill for some.
In any event, hybrids are here to stay. Their numbers in the used car market will only swell as more and more automakers add hybrid systems to their cars to help them meet ever-stricter federal fuel economy regulations. That means more choices for fuel-efficient used cars and trucks are on the way.