Staff Car Update: The Search For a Good, Used Hybrid Is Harder Than it Looks

Buying a shiny new car is generally a pretty nice experience. Even buying a mid-to-upper range second hand car can even be pretty good. The dealers or sellers want to get the best price, and they’ll normally work for it. Free teas and coffees, sitting down to have a chat, a good long time to look over the car and take it for a proper test drive. And because you’re the one with the scads of cash, you have the power. You can always walk away.

Looking for a bargain-priced, reliable example is proving a challenge

Looking for a bargain-priced, reliable example of a Toyota Prius hybrid is proving a challenge

In comparison, buying a used car — or fishing at the bottom of the barrel as I like to call it — is always much less fun. The dealers don’t really care that much, their margin on the cars is small and they know they’ll sell to some poor soul as long as they’re roadworthy and legal. The dealers themselves tend to be the smallest independent ones who’s knowledge, particularly of technically complex cars like hybrids or electric cars is vastly outweighed by their attitude. And the cars tend to be much less well presented.

As I mentioned last month, I’m on the lookout for a serviceable early hybrid (or a cheap second generation one) which has meant I’ve dived back in to the fast flowing river of second hand car sales. But having spent years swimming with the minnows down here, I’m fairly used to the process. A lot of ringing around, a lot of questions before you go, and then a really thorough check. I’d like to think the days of sawdust in the oil and EP90 in the gearbox to shut them up were long gone, but they’re really not. There are still unscrupulous dealers out there, eager to make money off your desperation for a car.

As a buyer, you need to make sure that there aren’t any obvious bodges because protections for used-car buyers are pretty slim. Perhaps the most important thing is to know your prey — or in other words, the vehicle you’re looking to buy. And if you don’t know it, learn about it before hand. Know what goes wrong, what’s likely to be failing at that age, and make sure your rose-tinted glasses are definitely at home. But the savvy buyer has something in their arsenal when looking at modern cars that has not been a feature of most of our fleet. On Board Diagnostics (OBDII).


These can be cheaply purchased, and save you a lot of trouble when looking for a used car.

For very little, you can pick up a bluetooth or USB OBDII scanner which you can use to look at a car’s on board computer and which will give you information that can make the difference between buying a bargain or buying a lemon. Pair that with some software on your tablet or laptop and you can check out the state of the batteries, whether there are any alarming fault codes before, or after, your test drive (or during, if you buy software that can log faults as they occur). If you’ve a partner in crime who can watch it while you go, in an EV you might even be able to dynamically monitor your battery voltages during the test drive.

And so it was that  after a full week of chasing cars that disappeared I finally thought I had a couple to look at, and possibly even a third car that might, just might, be available. Of course, none of the cars I was interested in were actually in the city in which I live. Oh no, that’d be far too easy. So return ticket booked I headed off into London for a day of hunt the Prius, laptop and ODBII scanner in hand.

At least, that was the plan.

I arrived to test drive the first one; it’d been left unloved under a tree and was looking spectacularly shabby. Whatever condition the paintwork was in, it was underneath a thick layer of seed-pods and gunge. The dealer couldn’t persuade the remote key to work. Eventually he realised that the 12volt (‘ancillery’) battery was flat. Not an uncommon problem on Prii of this age, but hardly an auspicious start. Unlocking the car manually he wandered off to get some jump leads. Inserting the key in the ignition revealed a car with a battery so completely flat it couldn’t even complain.

Still, it was a chance for a good look over of the outside. Which revealed a car that’d clearly spent its life in London. Whilst the interior looked pretty mint, bearing its 150,000 miles surprisingly well, the outside was pockmarked with an array of small dings and scrapes. The bumper at the back didn’t match the rest of the car, but there was nothing to suggest any major prangs. I popped open both the bonnet and the boot. The boot had some odd stains (mmm, charming!) and an odour that I couldn’t quite place. One of the most concerning smells is one of a failing battery, and I couldn’t rule out that that’s what I could smell. None of the retaining nubbins were there on the hybrid battery cover… another concerning sign, and the dealer had no idea if it was on its original battery.

In my case, the dealer didn't even know where the 12-volt battery was (Hint: it's in the boot)

In my case, the dealer didn’t even know where the 12-volt battery was (Hint: it’s in the boot)

Nor, incidentally, did the dealer know where the 12v battery was. After some gentle pointing in the right direction he connected the jump-starting pack to it and seemed confused by my statement that this was a bit of a concern regarding the condition of the 12 volt battery. He indicated it’d been sat for a week, maybe two, and so it made sense that it was flat.

Uh hu.

Thankfully, with the addition of a jumper battery, the Prius leapt into life, and my scanner informed me that the car had no known faults – I became a little more positive; but after a test drive which lasted less than a mile and no more than 5 or 6 minutes the dealer seemed done. No chance to check the car after the run, he wanted to head off and asked me to pull over outside the railway station from which he seemed keen that I should leave.

Oh dear.

Without a decent length of test drive it’s very hard to gauge a car, particularly one of this age, well. Discussing the price seemed to be taboo, the dealer clearly not happy with the concept that I might not want to straight up pay the asking price; I wonder if he, himself, has overpaid. So, somewhat unimpressed I abandoned that, scribbled a few notes just in case I suddenly decide I’d like to review my thoughts later, and hopped on a train to meet the second dealer.

Who I rang…and who told me that the car was being used by a member of staff’s wife. And that it wouldn’t be available either for a test drive or to buy – despite them having told me to come on Monday to test drive it.

So that went well.

And so I returned home and started to prepare myself for another foray into the world of first generation hybrids. The quest continues…


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