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Used Guide: 5 tips before you buy that used hybrid logo 2022-01-24 Justin Pritchard
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Hybrid cars have been on Canadian roads for more than two decades.


The Honda Insight was the first hybrid car on sale in North America, and it wasn’t long before the floodgates opened. Today, hybrid vehicle selection is wider than ever, in both the new and used car markets. As shopper interest in electric and electrified vehicles surges, options are growing even more numerous.

Popular used hybrid models include the Toyota Prius, Camry Hybrid and Highlander Hybrid; the Honda Insight; the Kia Niro; Ford Escape; Hyundai Sonata Hybrid; Ford Fusion Energi; and Lexus ES 300h. Many others are available, too.

Common to each? All hybrids fit conventional gasoline powertrains with additional hardware and electronics that are used to generate, store, and transmit power This elevates efficiency and performance to new levels. 

If you’re shopping for your first used hybrid, check out the tips and considerations below. They come from years of research and hundreds of used car buyer’s guides, and can help you find a better used hybrid for your dollar, while starting your ownership experience off on the best footing possible.

The 12-Volt Battery

 Electrical diagnostic using a multimeter © Getty Electrical diagnostic using a multimeter

Most hybrids have a large battery that’s used to store surplus electricity generated by the hybrid engine, as well as a conventional 12-volt battery used by on-board electronics, accessories, and even parts of the hybrid drive system.

Many owners of modern vehicles say they don’t make 12-volt batteries like they used to, and in many applications, the expected lifespan of this battery is as low as 3 years from the factory. Modern cars are, after all, harder on their batteries than ever.

If your used hybrid’s 12-volt battery is unhealthy or dying, it could be an invitation for problems to start. In fact, ensuring the used hybrid you’re considering is running a fresh and healthy 12-volt battery reduces the likelihood of trouble reported by numerous hybrid owners across a wide range of makes and models.

So, when buying a used hybrid car, have its 12-volt battery tested before you buy and replace it at once if it doesn’t pass the test with flying colours.


The Traction Battery

 After Terry Orr bought this Volkswagen e-Golf battery pack on eBay, he decided to build an electrified Volkswagen Beetle. © Terry Orr After Terry Orr bought this Volkswagen e-Golf battery pack on eBay, he decided to build an electrified Volkswagen Beetle.

The larger battery in a hybrid car is called its traction battery. This battery pack is typically located beneath the rear seats or cargo area floor. The traction battery stores electricity generated by the hybrid engine as you drive around, later feeding that electricity to the wheels of the car to help boost performance and efficiency.

The traction battery in your used hybrid likely has an 8-year, 160,000 kilometre warranty against degradation — the wearing down of battery capacity that occurs naturally over time. Reports of failed hybrid batteries are rare against total hybrid car sales volumes. Warning signs include poor fuel economy, warning lights, error messages, and poor performance.

If you have any concerns, talk to a dealership or specialty hybrid service centre about having a diagnostic test performed on the vehicle’s battery, before you buy. 

Though reports of traction battery trouble exists, the experience of most hybrid owners tends to be free of battery-related trouble or degradation until the vehicle hits very high mileage — perhaps 200,000 kilometres or more.


Battery Air Filter

 An auto mechanic wearing protective work gloves holds a dirty, clogged air filter over a car engine during general auto maintenance. © Getty An auto mechanic wearing protective work gloves holds a dirty, clogged air filter over a car engine during general auto maintenance.

The battery pack in a hybrid car works better if its temperature is carefully controlled. That’s why some hybrid traction batteries have a means of drawing air into the battery pack, perhaps by way of an electric fan or a special assembly built into the vehicle’s climate control system.

In any case, be sure to check the owner’s manual of the hybrid you’re considering to see if the battery pack has an air filter that requires occasional replacement. I’ve encountered numerous stories about owners who neglect this important air filter, or aren’t even aware of its existence. Over time, the battery air filter becomes clogged, which can result in performance problems, warning lights, and more.

Running a clean battery air filter is another great way to fend off potential trouble. Check the maintenance section of the vehicle’s owner’s manual for the full scoop.


Rear Brakes

 A thin coat of rust on your brake rotors isn’t cause for concern © Jil McIntosh A thin coat of rust on your brake rotors isn’t cause for concern

In a hybrid car, the brakes work differently than in a conventional model. When you press the brakes in a hybrid car, the electric motor does much of the work of slowing the car down. This means the hybrid’s conventional braking system doesn’t see as much use.

You may have heard that the brakes in a hybrid car tend to last a very long time, and this is the reason why. However, braking system parts can suffer from rust problems if they’re not used regularly, especially in a hybrid car that hasn’t been maintained properly, or that’s only driven on occasion.

Some owners of hybrid cars report trouble with rust formation on braking system parts, especially the rear brakes. Most do not.

On your test-drive, visually inspect visible braking system components like rotors and calipers, if you’re able. You’re on the lookout for signs of excessive rust, as well as any unwanted sounds or sensations from the brakes while using them on your test-drive.

To save money and headaches, approach any used hybrid you’re considering assuming that it needs, at minimum, a rear brake job — at least until you’ve got reliable proof to the contrary. A professional brake system inspection ahead of your purchase is strongly advised.

Why Dealer Servicing is Key

 Vehicle inspection © monkeybusinessimages Vehicle inspection

All vehicles require regular maintenance, care and inspections to achieve the longest and healthiest life possible. When buying a used hybrid, seek out a model that’s had these procedures carried out consistently in a dealership setting, for maximum peace of mind. 

There are two reasons for this: First? Many hybrids are subjected to software updates designed to correct or improve the operation of one or more vehicle systems, or to prevent possible trouble later on. Software updates can improve or optimize the operation of the car’s climate control system, stereo, Bluetooth, hybrid engine, and more. If you buy a used hybrid that’s been regularly dealer serviced throughout its entire life, chances are that relevant software updates have been applied already, giving you a more reliable and efficient ownership experience right off the bat. 

Second? Used hybrids that have been exclusively dealer-serviced run less risk of trouble caused by non-approved parts or fluids, or improper procedures to change them. This can be vital to keeping your warranty — and your hybrid powertrain warranty — in good standing. 

Remember: your second-hand hybrid’s remaining warranty coverage doesn’t cover damage or wear caused by a failure to properly maintain the vehicle, or by the use of non-approved parts or fluids.


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