How to buy a used hybrid: CAR buyer’s guide | CAR Magazine

How to buy a used hybrid: CAR buyer’s guide

Published: 28 March 2023 Updated: 28 March 2023

Hybrid cars were developed in the ’80s, on sale in 1998
Economy of diesel, vastly reduced local emissions
Multiple levels of hybrid tech now offered

The push for reduced emissions is not a new one – it began with a wee dram on the rocks in 1957 – but for most used car buyers the merits of a hybrid car need to meet the practical concerns of cost and reliability, rather than reducing particulates. Fortunately the concerns of Claude Lorius and the worries of second hand car owners are aligned by the fusion of ICE and electricity.

Hybrid car technology first joined the world stage in 1998, with the Toyota Prius and a series-hybrid ‘self-charging’ configuration. Initial sales in Japan were soon expanded, and in America the Prius became the ultimate virtue signal for Hollywood celebs, lampooned in South Park. In the UK, the signal usually read ‘For Hire’, as the benefits of electric motors in crawling city traffic (plus tax incentives, of course) were obvious for taxi and delivery drivers.

From hybrid synergy drive, to hybrid divergence

Now there are three classes of hybrid car to choose from. The self-charging hybrid generally follows Toyota’s original concept of electric motor doing most driving, engine as a generator, and a 1-2kWh capacity high-voltage battery. These can typically achieve 1.2 to 4 miles on electric motor, often at low speeds only.

The Toyota Prius Mk1 introduced self-charging hybrids to the world in 1998
The Toyota Prius Mk1 introduced self-charging hybrids to the world in 1998

The plug-in hybrid, made popular by the 2013 Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, uses a larger battery for long-range electric-only operation, often providing more power for all-wheel drive or performance options. Many will achieve over 20 miles of EV range even in winter, and can usually reach motorway speeds without troubling the engine when charged up.

Finally the mild hybrid, or mHEV, takes the beefed-up starter-generator concept used by stop-start systems and gives it a small battery pack to provide a variety of efficiency measures. It’s the loosest definition of hybrid, and the abilities of cars marketed as mHEV can vary wildly: the common thread is a 48V electrical system.

Mitsubishi's Outlander PHEV exemplified plug-in hybrids, despite previous range-extender EVs that came close
Mitsubishi’s Outlander PHEV exemplified plug-in hybrids, despite previous range-extender EVs that came close

Read to the end for a little more hybrid history, if you’re interested in knowing how close Britain came to pioneering this tech.

Why buy a used hybrid car?

There are second hand hybrid cars for most lifestyles and needs, with prices for good examples starting from around £4000. Spend around £12,000 and you’ll find nicer examples, and if you’re considering a used larger car instead of a new supermini, the £18,000 cost of a typical new entry-level car will get a recent, lower-mileage hybrid in most shapes and sizes.

Reasons to choose hybrid can vary, but among the leading drives to go for the newer tech are clean air zones and ULEZ, and high average fuel economy during urban driving. Drivers with an automatic licence benefit from the hybrid car as well: nearly all are two-pedal and unlike older, cheap conventional automatics, are generally very reliable.

That reliability and longevity also brings in the other reason to look at a hybrid car – it’s the sensible choice over a tired premium diesel. Few of the problems that blight the black pump’s followers will crop up on electrified petrol cars – AdBlue/DEF, particulate filters, hammered dual-mass flywheels and grimy, grubby, sludge-prone oil are eliminated simply by the dominant petrol + auto combination for the engine side of things.

Features such as regenerative braking also prolong the life of consumables, and wear and tear on mounts, transmission and components is generally mitigated by the heavy-handed engine management behind the drive-by-wire accelerator – in short, a hybrid’s built to shield the running gear from the most aggressive and ham-fisted of previous owners.

So your careful, considerate stewardship will give any used hybrid you choose a very long life, of course…

How to buy a used hybrid car well

Before shopping for a hybrid car, make sure the technology meets your needs. If you want better fuel economy, but can’t plug the car in to charge up at home or work, there’s no benefit in public charging. Similarly if your typical daily drives are around 30-40 miles or more, the reduced weight of a self-charging hybrid means lower fuel consumption: the advantages of PHEVs begin with company car tax and VED bands via lower tested CO2, rather than real-world economy.

There are exceptions of course, and unsurprisingly Toyota’s plug-in models are very effective. If you even a small solar panel array you can enjoy ‘free’ miles by limiting your charge rate to the panel output, and models such as the RAV4 PHEV genuinely deliver their 40+ mile EV-mode claims, and diesel-matching economy on long runs.

Not all PHEVs are equal – a Jeep Renegade’s tiny fuel tank, small battery and boxy body can give a combined range of just 200 miles and all the performance boost is gone when the battery is depleted, leaving a heavy, thirsty car in the hands of the driver.

For smaller cars, mHEV systens like Suzuki’s BoosterJet or Ford’s EcoBoost mHEV are very effective. The stop-start tech for urban crawls is better, there’s often a bit more power on tap for overtaking, and they often retain a manual gearbox if that’s your preferred way of driving: engine braking makes up for the gentler regenerative effort.

Naturally five-door, five seat SUVs dominate the sector now – but for used buyers there’s a diverse selection of quirky (Honda Civic IMA, CR-Z and Insight Mk1), sensible (Pruis/Auris/Ioniq) and exciting (BMW i8 is the obvious candidate) hybrids, from Audi to Volvo.

At the cheaper end of the market it’s pretty much ‘a used Prius’, and they’re a worthy alternative to a diesel Auris or Corolla. You can find seven-seat hybrids, but beware that a lot of earlier designs would lose the third row featured on ICE equivalents, such as the Outlander. Just because an SUV or MPV has seven seats, don’t assume the hybrid model will be identical.

Used car buying gadgets

Before buying, get tooled up. No, not armed for negotiation – grab some cheap kit that will let the car tell you everything it knows. An OBD-II code reader will reveal emissions and running issues – different levels of sophistication are available, but for basic buying insight a £20 one will give you the essentials.

As well as the old friends of a magnet, torch, tread-depth gauge and gloves for checking bodywork, tyres and suspension (don’t forget the inside sidewall), cheap borescopes can reveal secrets behind body panels.

A cheap laser pointer is also remarkably useful for checking panel flatness and looking for stonechips and cracks in glass, and a UV torch will reveal coolant and A/C leaks, but don’t shine it in the back of a former taxi.

Above all, take some time looking at owner’s clubs and forums for common faults or unexpectedly expensive repairs.

1 – buying a used hybrid is buying a used car, basic rules still apply

Make sure you check the car’s history as much as you can before enquiring, using tools such as Carbaba which reveals V5 and plate changes, the online MOT history checker, and searching forums for the car in question. Google can even search text within images, so looking up a registration plate may be unusually informative on more specialist/premium models, or oddly-cheap/accident damaged cars.

You want to see a V5 in the seller’s name for a private deal, and when looking at cars from traders there should be a clear vehicle information sheet, and a basic warranty. Sold as seen is often claimed as a get out clause, but you don’t have to accept that unless you really are a trader yourself. Don’t give away basic consumer protection for a couple of hundred quid of discount.

2 – Body and condition: are write-offs worth considering?

At the cheaper end of the market you might find Cat S or N repaired write offs. These can be worth exploring if the damage was done when the car was older, particularly in busy cities where cosmetic damage can get big repair estimates. Anything over five figures or under seven years old with a category marker should be avoided. Spotting undeclared damage is a skill as old as motoring – look for date codes on glass that match, matched paint texture, shade and wear, and correct e-markings and manufacturer symbols on lights.

Overspray on trim and rubber pieces is a concern if it’s on the main structure of the car, but on doors and panels it could just be inexpert scratch or mobile paint repairs. In the case of rear damage check the boot floor, seams and aperture for misaligned or wrinkled metal. Light front damage, such as bumpers and lights, is often well within a private trader’s ability to repair well, but check the cooling and air conditioning systems, and make sure the lights fitted match the original spec if it should have HID, adaptive or LED lights – they’re often the reason it was written off for otherwise minor damage.

While checking the car for damage, look at the tyres and brake discs. With low mileage cars it’s a good idea to look at the date code on the tyres (which will look like 0412) – the last two digits are the year, and if they are over five years old (perhaps seven, if a very good brand and not visibly perished) take the cost of replacement into account. Look under the bonnet at the colour and condition of the coolant, overall state of the engine bay, and check the oil level if possible (some cars have electronic measures only). For mild hybrid and belt-driven cars make sure any belts and tensioners on the service schedule have been attended to.

3 – Check cables, keys and docs before looking at the car

Sounds daft, but if the seller doesn’t have the full set of keys, book back, logbook and service guide (many histories are online now) you’d walk away from a higher priced conventional car – and if it’s a plug-in hybrid, you should have a couple of charging cables (some models charged extra for the 13A three-pin cable, but there should be a wallbox/public charging lead). Third-party chargers are available, but often of lighter quality build and less conservative safety margins in terms of current draw and cable thickness.

A Skoda 13A charging cable alongside a generic third-party cable. The difference in physical build is immediately apparent.
A Skoda 13A charging cable alongside a generic third-party cable. The difference in physical build is immediately apparent.

If it has keyless entry make sure it works, and don’t be afraid to look at the state of the fobs and keys; genuine replacements can cost hundreds. Check inside the boot for the puncture repair/emergency kit, and the presence of the locking wheel nut if applicable. Few hybrid cars have a spare wheel or space for one,but models such as the Toyota Corolla or Suzuki Swace do have space.

Some cars, such as Fords, have their navigation data on SD card or DVD-ROM; when looking at a car from a dealer it’s worth checking the date of software and maps. So when you’re shown the inside of the car, start with the tech. Go through the menus, check the buttons work, pan and fade for all the speakers and check out the economy stats – that reveals how it’s been used, if they weren’t reset beforehand. Drivers rarely remember to clear navigation data – dealers SHOULD remove it, but as a vague ‘glance’ you can get an idea of where the car’s been driven.

Familiarise yourself with any hidden (right hand knee, obscured by steering wheel, etc) buttons, check the USB ports, and if you have your code reader plug it in, switch ignition on (not running) and read the codes. If anything shows up, make a note of it, and see if the check engine light comes on.

4 – hybrid test drive: modes and motion

If a plug-in hybrid has been presented for a test drive with a fully charged battery, make sure you get a route that is long enough to drain the battery or go into the modes and change it to ‘save’ the charge for later. It’s entirely feasible that a dodgy dealer could hide engine issues by keeping a PHEV in EV mode. Ideally ask for a test drive over an hour, accompanied or otherwise, and make sure you include dual carriageway and busy town areas.

When the engine fires up, was it smooth? Drive with windows down, near buildings if you can, to hear what it’s doing. Many of them use CVT gearboxes and what the engine revs are doing has no bearing on your speed, but as a rule if you put your foot down it will work hard.

Where available, drop into B or ‘regen’ mode, and feel how well the car slows down. Test the brakes not just for hard stop, but also in traffic: even when new some hybrid cars can display an odd step in pressure, so you’re feeling for straight, smooth slowing without pulsing or dragging feelings that would suggest warped discs.

After a test drive

Once you have checked all the controls and how it drives, don’t switch it off. Get out, smell for the sweet, top-of-palate clinginess of antifreeze (which could just be a failed expansion cap seal), and also the acrid burnt odour of brake and clutch friction material. If there’s a hint of that, hold the back of your hand near the centre of each wheel as a binding brake will make it warmer than the rest.

A Toyota Prius engine bay - don't forget the traditional checks when buying a hybrid
Buying a used hybrid car – check coolant and oil condition

Hop back in and run through the climate control, check both sides get hot and the vents work as indicated, including any rear controls or vents. Check the AC if the weather is cold enough – heated screens can be tricky, but heated seats and steering wheels can usually be felt even in summer. Smell for antifreeze again, as a leaking heater matrix is often a major repair.

Once you’re satisfied the car comes with everything it needs and drives well, do a final check of those things that show up to trigger buyers’ remorse, like scratched side windows, broken Isofix covers and awkward locks. Take another slow look over the windscreen for chips, then decide if the wear and tear needs negotiation.

5 – after you buy, the long-term plan

With most hybrid cars the item that scares most people is also the least worrying. Batteries are long-lived and can be repaired on a component level, so don’t panic. However, if the car has good history and is recent, it’s worth getting a warranty because other bits can, and do, go wrong. For example, the Mercedes C-Class hybrid has air suspension as standard – a notorious trouble-spot on UK cars regardless of engine.

Limit your charges to 80% capacity and low-rate unless you really need to maximise the range on EV mode. Get ahead of cooling system maintenance, as it often has many electronic components that won’t withstand the abuse of old coolant or plain water (don’t mix coolant types as they form a gel that blocks pipework).

Finally, in addition to the usual car care routines, check that there are no revised service requirements for gearbox and motor. In recent years new gearboxes and the like have been released with ‘sealed for life’ mentality and later revised to 40,000-75,000 oil changes for example. Miss one, and that sealed for life can be ‘before your last finance payment’. And on that note, don’t be afraid to use hire-purchase or HP finance on expensive middle-aged complex cars – if you buy a lemon you can return the car after half the payments have been made, cutting your losses.

Hybrid history: how the Prince of Darkness sought lighter emissions

Thanks to Toyota’s investment, engineering and marketing, hybrid cars are strongly associated with Japan – yet Britain could have been a pioneer. In 1982 Lucas Chloride and Reliant revealed the Lucas ‘Hybrid-Electric Research Vehicle’, a five-door aerodynamic, tall hatchback that combined an electric motor, a load of batteries, and Reliant’s delightful lightweight alloy 850cc engine in a remarkably prescient configuration.

Able to charge the batteries while driving or plugged in (with a maximum range of 40 miles in EV mode it was, arguably, the first PHEV), it could reach 85mph combined or 75mph EV-mode and offered more power from the 67bhp electric motor than the 40bhp provided by the Reliant petrol unit. Other prototypes exist from around the world, but Lucas and Reliant created something recognisably similar to a modern PHEV.

The Lucas Electric Hybrid car of 1982 - press images via Sporting Reliants
Lucas Chloride and Reliant built a modern plug-in hybrid prototype in 1982

Sadly the car itself, once released from a museum in the early 2000s, was subject to abuse and vandalism and was last heard of as an engineless, damaged shell being retrieved from a field in Devon. Like many of Ogle and Reliant’s innovative designs, it’s bizarrely undervalued – once again, history being written by the victors. But for once, the magic smoke that escaped Lucas’ grasp wasn’t a disaster: rather, the genie that lead to the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and Lamborghini LB744

While petrol-electric hybrid tech dates to the 19th century – Porsche developing such concepts as hub motors as early as 1900 – it’s advances in battery technology that have made it competitive, and a wider acceptance of cars just being considerably heavier than the expectations and aims of 1950s-1990s designers.

By Richard Kilpatrick

Used cars editor. Questionable taste in cars, music and hairstyles. Wears a lot of black