Staff Car Update: The hunt is over, and a Toyota Prius Joins the Garage

It didn’t start well. I pulled into the filling station in my Austin 1300 with an urgent need to be 100 miles away. I stuck the nozzle into the filler neck, pulled the trigger and was met with a spray of fuel down the side of the car and onto my shoes. Oh, the joys of the internal combustion engine. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I have finally evolved my main transport. Well, more or less. Having almost despaired after the last hunt, with dealers selling dubious sheds for vastly more than their value or weirdly advertising cars that weren’t actually for sale, I took a break and went on holiday with my partner. A week in the mountain air in a location where my mobile actually displayed ‘No Signal’ and where there wasn’t even a landline, let alone a broadband connection, and I felt refreshed.

We had assumed a first-generation Toyota Prius would be our lot.

We had assumed a first-generation Toyota Prius would be our lot.

I’d been put in contact with some lovely folks at a used hybrid specialist who pointed me at some cars ‘in the trade’, to give me an idea of what was out there. Interestingly, the price difference between what’s in trade auctions and the prices you can find if you hunt enough online aren’t that huge. Which suggests that the amount of profit some of these traders are making on each car must be wafer thin. That may at least explain the dubious sales tactics I’ve encountered.

But funnily enough, the day before I was due to head back from my holiday the specialist contacted me… they had a bead on a first generation Prius (low milage, one owner, full Toyota service history). Unfortunately, the Toyota dealer selling it wanted a bit more than I felt it was worth. So when I got back I headed up a trail that I’d started before the holiday: a rare Japanese import, CVT equipped, first generation Insight. This was a car I actually wanted, despite it being totally impractical, and needing recommissioning, and almost certainly needing a new battery pack too. Conveniently, it was also a 5 hour car journey away and had no MOT. Since he’d offered in his ad, before I went away I’d asked the owner to MOT the Honda – which he obviously did whilst I was away, and amended the advert accordingly. Honda Insight, rare CVT, now with shiny new MOT.

Of course, by the time I’d got back from holiday, it had sold.

After a brief anguished wail, I fired up the web browser again – looking around at a selection of sites and taking on board some general advice (my man on the inside informed me that cars with faults are more likely to go to public auctions, because dealers don’t want to get a bad name at trade-only auctions). Standing e-bay searches, gumtree, autotrader, BCA… I had an entire screen filled with tabs of search results that I checked frequently to make sure I didn’t miss anything.

I got within spitting distance of a Gen 2 Prius on e-bay, but it just squeaked over the price I’d pay. And then, on autotrader, a slightly tatty Gen 2 Prius, with a mere 140k on the clock, appeared. It took me moments to ring. The owner informed me that someone was coming to view it already… but by this point I’d realised that they do come up fairly frequently, so I wasn’t too stressed. Then he rang back a couple of hours later; the other person had failed to show up.

The 2005 T-Spirit lacks some of the features of the later Gen 2 prius

The 2005 T-Spirit lacks some of the features of the later Gen 2 Prius

I had the scent of a potentially good car, so arranged to head down there. I threw myself into the Austin and sprinted (slowly) down the motorway. The Prius was exactly as described: externally a bit shabby with a potted service history (great for the first 60k miles, then just random bits recorded, and allegedly serviced in January along with a new exhaust). The 2005 T-Spirit is a little more basic than the 2006 version; it has a more rudimentary ‘infotainment system’ (although benefits from the delightfully anachronistic tape-deck). Unfortunately, this also means that whilst rear parking sensors are available, the self-park and reversing camera aren’t (this is not strictly true – but close enough, the parts are only available in Japan). However, it does still sport cruise control, bluetooth and voice-activation of some features.

It ran okay, it drove fine and the batteries seemed in good order. The interior was surprisingly good apart from wear on various switches where people’ve clearly rested their arm whilst driving. In the end I paid asking price and pulled away a happy person.

The 'infotainment' system of the 2005 Prius lacks some more modern features but gains a tape deck

The ‘infotainment’ system of the 2005 Prius lacks some more modern features but gains a tape deck

But, it proved the point. I could have gone for a first generation Prius. If you’re willing to hunt and wait for it, you can get them for around £1.5k. You can even pick up the Japanese spec version for under £500 (but bear in mind, very limited spares support and a practically unavailable battery pack).

However, for the sake of practicality, the hatchback layout of the Gen 2 Prius can’t really be beaten. It also offers greater fuel efficiency and a spares situation that’s vastly superior. And those Gen 2 Prii, if you really hunt (or are willing to travel) you can pick up for around £2.5k, particularly the ‘transitional model’ which was around until 2005. But beware, a lot of the cars in this price range are repaired insurance Category D or C write-offs, so if you do go scraping the bottom of the barrel make sure you know what you’re looking at and that it’s been properly returned to the road.

Cosmetic defects are common on lower price used cars

Cosmetic defects are common on lower price used cars

For cars of this age and price-bracket, the Category D write-off is something to be aware of, but not necessarily something you should avoid. As these cars have started to drop off the precipitous cliff of market value, the cost of bodyshops doing even minor repairs is often prohibitive to the original owner, once their mark up and labour rates are included. So insurance companies are increasingly unwilling to repair even very minor dings on cars of this age and value.

Even smaller workshops are quite adequate to do the kinds of work that most Category D write-offs will need, so whether from a larger trade-seller or a smaller private sale, a Category D write-off shouldn’t necessarily mean ‘run far and fast’. However, with cars as complex as hybrids you’d be wise to make sure that there are no other faults lurking unrepaired. An engineer’s report from an organisation like the AA or the RAC may be useful in ensuring the work has been done adequately (and also may be requested by your insurance company) but is by no means a definite requirement for a Category D car.

Category C write-offs, in contrast, are hybrids of which you should be highly wary. Whilst the repair cost of a Category D should not exceed the value of the car, with Category C cars the repair cost is deemed to exceed the value of the car. As we’re dealing with lower end of the market hybrids, it’s very easy for a minor fender-bender to result in a Category C. As I’ve mentioned, garages can discount their own labour, making repairs profitable if they’re selling the car. For example, if you happen to have the spares lying around, or if it’s your garage and you’re happy to do your own work at a much lower labour rate, then you certainly could achieve a good standard of repair.

But for the more significant category C’s, there will be a marked temptation to do repairs ‘on the cheap’. Whilst these cars are subject to an identity check, it’s not a check on their roadworthyness. Remember, an MOT is no guarantee that a vehicle is safe or even roadworthy. An independent engineer’s report may be required by some insurance companies before they’ll insure one, but it would be a wise plan to have one in place before buying a car repaired after a Category C write-off.

With 140,000 miles on the clock, this Prius has gained a new owner

With 140,000 miles on the clock, this Prius has gained a new owner

Thankfully, I was able to find a car in my price bracket that has never been written off, thus avoiding the minefield of potentially dodgy repairs. Time will tell whether this was a good purchase, but it drove beautifully all the way back from London… so here’s a toast to transport, evolved.


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