No Limes! No Lemons!

By Catherine McNulty

September 2, 2015 5 min read

Hybrids aren't the flying cars so many of us thought we'd have by the time we grew up, but they're still pretty cool. A hybrid is a car that runs on both gasoline and electricity. The Toyota Prius was the first mass-produced hybrid car, which became available in the United States in 2000. The promise of it being good for the environment coupled with fewer trips to the gas station and tax breaks made it immediately popular. Other car manufacturers followed suit, and we are currently in the midst of a hybrid vehicle boom. Even Lexus has gotten into the game with a fleet of luxury hybrids.

If you're in the market for a new -- or a new to you -- car, it makes sense to consider a hybrid. Think of all the money and time you'll save by not having to go to the gas station! Think of the tax refund you might qualify for! You could use the HOV lanes! But just because a car is deemed better for the environment doesn't mean it's a better-built machine. What should you look for when buying a hybrid, especially when buying a used hybrid?

As with any car, consider what works best for you and your lifestyle -- and your bank account. When buying used, be sure to get the car thoroughly inspected and ask for the maintenance records. A well-maintained car is less likely to have major problems. If you're buying through a used-car buying service such as CarMax or at a dealership, then the car will come pre-inspected. If you are buying independently, take the car to a mechanic you trust. If your mechanic isn't well versed in hybrids, it's time to get a new mechanic.

Hybrids retain their value more than almost any other vehicle currently on the market. Rising gas prices and environmental consciousness have made them desirable. Because so many have been sold, there is a robust market of secondhand hybrids. Expect to pay more for a used hybrid than you would a traditional vehicle. Do used hybrids have specific problems you should be aware of? They do, but they also have benefits.

One of the most expensive and feared things to replace in a hybrid is the battery. When buying a new hybrid, the battery comes with a manufacturer's warranty, usually eight years or 100,000 miles. But when buying used you may not get that. Battery replacement can cost anywhere from a thousand dollars to over six thousand depending on the car's make and model. So how do you know whether the battery is still good?

A well-trained mechanic can check the battery packs to see where the battery is in its lifespan. What most people don't realize is hybrids have two batteries. The battery pack that runs the car and a standard 12-volt automotive battery to power onboard electronics like the radio and interior lighting.

When hybrids first came on the market, many consumers were uncomfortable with the battery. Rumors persist even now that the batteries will die and leave a motorist stranded. The truth is it's almost unheard of for the hybrid battery to just die. But if the 12-volt automotive battery has been drained -- let's say you left the dome light on all night -- then your hybrid won't start. Just like a regular car, you'll need a jump.

Other things that need to be thoroughly checked on a used hybrid? A mechanic needs to pay special attention to the electric motor and generator.

But there are benefits to buying used hybrids, as well. Because they are more computer-controlled, it's easier for a mechanic to get information from the car itself, not the person selling the car. Sadly, we're not at the point where the car can just tell you whether it has been in an accident, but there's plenty of other information to be gleaned from it: driving patterns and usage. And hybrids use a different braking system than all gas vehicles, so their brakes don't wear out as fast.

One thing many people have trouble adjusting to initially is how quiet hybrids are. The electric engine is noiseless, and when the car is turned on, that's the engine that engages. There are definitely adjustments when transitioning from traditional gas power vehicles to hybrids, but don't let that scare you away. Besides, it's only a matter of time before we all have to adjust to flying cars. Right?

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