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Should You Buy a Second-Hand Prius?

Maintenance costs may outstrip fuel savings

Since the summer of 2000 more than 500,000 Prius hybrids have quietly filled U.S. roads and highways. Now many of the sophisticated little cars are showing up in used car lots as second-hand gas sippers.

With sales of new hybrids increasing by almost 30 percent a year and gasoline prices following at a faster pace, a second-hand hybrid can appear to be a smart alternative in a tight economy.

But because of the car's relatively new design, there is little information available to help consumers judge the reliability of a used Prius other than reports from previous Prius owners.

Consumer beware. The risks may be higher than you think.

Battery blues

Doris in Smithville, Tennessee bought a used Prius in July 2006.

Trying to inform myself prior to buying the car, I asked about the battery and was told never had they seen the whole battery fail, only a cell at a time to the tune of $200 per cell, she was told. I did not want to spend the money on a brand-new Prius. I wanted to test the waters on a used one first.

The decision to buy a second had hybrid was costly.

The 2006 Prius had 73,200 miles on the odometer leaving 26,800 remaining on the hybrid battery warranty. I bought it and thought I was living the dream, but only for a moment, Doris told ConsumerAffairs.com.

When the weather turned cold her Prius would have no power. The engine was difficult to start. Finally it went totally down, she said. No power!

The Toyota dealer told Doris at first that she must have over-filled the gas tank and may have ruined the Prius computer system. The repair cost would be $1,900.

One year later the Prius lost all power while driving at 65 mph on an Interstate highway. "I was scared to death, Doris wrote. The Prius was towed to a dealer and Doris was told the main battery was down it would be $6,890 to fix it.

Remember, the first dealer told her the battery never failed completely and the replacement cost would be roughly $2,000.

Doris was lucky as things turned out.

They called tech support and found it was a leaf sucked up in a filter which in turn prevented gas and air from going to the battery and drained it." Doris spent $225 to tow the Prius to the dealer and $276 to charge the main battery plus tax, a lot less than the original $6,890 repair estimate but still $549.85.

But not all the repair news was good. "They told me it could happen again. So I'm stuck with what I feel is a defective product. I'm Toyota's rolling gunea pig, she said. I cannot trade the car because they tell I'm $5,500 up side down," she said. I have to buy a new car to roll this amount with it. I can't afford a new car with a $425 per month payment.

Transmission troubles

In Loomis, California, Sam tells the tale of expensive repairs with his 2003 Prius.

After a series of problems with the Prius engine, Toyota informed Sam that he needed to have the transmission replaced. The estimate for repairs was around $7,000, almost the value of the entire vehicle, according to Sam.

Naturally the vehicle was no longer covered by the warranty, he said.

The Prius had 116,289 miles on the odometer when the car began to malfunction. The check-engine light came on and the engine quickly shut down. The dealership informed Sam that the gasoline engine quit because the battery ran out of juice. The dealership checked the spark plugs and coils, detected slight misfire until warm but could not reproduce the problem. The cost of the service was $123.77.

The repair bill seemed too good to be true. And it was.

When the problem occurred a second time, the Toyota dealership said that the problem was not really the spark plugs but that the sophisticated hybrid transmission needed to be replaced. The estimate for the parts and labor for this repair would be approximately $2,000. The estimate was quickly revised to $7,000 with parts and labor. The cost of the new transmission alone was $5,000, Sam reported.

Early adopter

In Sunnyvale, California, Matt was one of the original 2001 Prius hybrid owners.

Now, after 130,000 miles of driving the main battery is dead. The Toyota dealer is telling me the life of the main battery was 100,000 for my car, although the new Prius comes with a 150,000-mile warranty, he said.

Matt said that the dealer told him he was the third Prius owner to require a main battery replacement.

Labor and parts, plus tax was $4,500. Unfortunately, there is no third-party service provider who knows how to fix Prius, he said.

Matt warns consumers interested in a second hand Prius to be prepared to pay $4,500 for the main battery before 150,000 miles have been recorded on the odometer.


That is not all.

The car is loaded with electronics and solid state controllers. Be prepared to pay outrageous prices for diagnostics and repair. Very rarely you will walk out with a bill costing under $300, Matt said.

You will pay nearly $150 for having a duplicate key made to your Prius. That is because the key apparently has an anti-theft chip which has to be programmed by Toyota, he said.

There's no doubt the Prius gets good gas mileage (though perhaps not as good as many buyers expect). But whether the total cost of ownership is reasonable is another question indeed.

Consumers who need reliable, inexpensive transportation are still better off with a simple, straightforward economy car -- a Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic or something similar with a four-cylinder engine and a manual transmission are likely to provide trouble-free, economic transportation for hundreds of thousands of miles.

Here are some of the reports we've received from other Prius owners

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