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Pre-owned hybrids: Here are four dependable used vehicles

Published September 15, 2013

According to Consumer Reports, the most reliable automobile you can buy is the Toyota Prius — and not Irv Gordon’s 1966 Volvo P1800, which is about to set another world record by crossing the three-million-mile threshold.

At first glance, it seems preposterous that a gas-electric hybrid with NASA-grade technology could work flawlessly, but it got us to thinking: If it’s half electric, isn’t it half as likely to break down?

Apparently, your best bet for a dependable used vehicle has an electric motor sandwiched between the engine and the transmission — although we did find a few mechanical hiccups documented online by owners.

About 6.8 million hybrid vehicles have been sold worldwide to date, yet relatively few have trickled into the used-car market. Here are four recommended second-hand hybrid models you can buy for about $15,000 or less. They’re reputed to save gas, too.

2004-08 Toyota Prius

It was the second-generation Toyota Prius that had captured the public’s attention after shedding the dowdy styling of its predecessor. The 2004 Prius had morphed into a sleek five-door hatchback riding on a longer wheelbase. While still classed as a compact, it rivaled the previous-generation Camry for passenger and cargo room.

The Prius was the product of 530 patents — a lawyer’s dream. New drive-by-wire electronics replaced mechanical linkages for the accelerator and shift lever. Also aiding efficiency was an electric power-steering pump and an industry-first electric air-conditioning compressor that kept the cool air coming after the gas engine shut down at intersections.

The hatchback’s 76-hp 1.5 L Atkinson-cycle four cylinder worked through a continuously variable transmission (CVT) that seamlessly managed power derived from both the engine and 67-hp electric motor, dispatching it to the front wheels. Together, the two motors put out a combined 133 hp. Here’s the kicker: the electric motor made 295 lb.-ft. of stump-pulling torque.

The most oft-cited Prius problems involve failing HID headlamps, which may shut off without warning. Replacement lamps are dear. The centre multi-function display may fail, too, due to poorly soldered internal connections. The power inverter coolant pump may conk out, resulting in the Check Engine light illuminating. Other weaknesses include poor-wearing tires, and faulty air conditioners and brake actuators.

2005-07 Ford Escape Hybrid

To create the world’s first sport-utility hybrid, Ford modified the Escape’s Mazda-supplied four banger to run on the Atkinson cycle, utilizing late valve closing to reduce pumping losses. The 133-hp gas engine was supplemented by a 94-hp electric motor and an Aisin CVT that allowed the Escape to be driven solely on electric power at low speeds, just like Toyota’s Prius (not coincidentally, the two automakers agreed to patent sharing in 2004.)

True to form, the hybrid powertrain was available in both front-wheel and all-wheel-drive configurations. The electric power steering worked when the gas engine shut off while creeping in heavy traffic, but the system provided little feedback in regular driving situations.

Like other hybrids, the Escape’s city fuel economy was better than on the highway, since the electric motor provided most of the propulsion on congested streets. Still, fuel economy was less than stellar, some owners noted. It didn’t stop New York City taxi operators from putting lots of yellow SUVs on the road, each racking up half a million kilometres of stop-and-go driving.

Reported problems include a water pump – which does extra duty cooling the vehicle’s many electronic controls – that can fail or spin slowly, causing the engine to shut down. All-wheel-drive models have a transfer case that can eat a bearing. Other issues include broken a/c blend actuators, intermittent electric steering, faulty door locks, errant rattles and flappy door gaskets.

2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid

Launched in March 2009, the Mexican-built Ford Fusion Hybrid debuted the restyled “Lady Schick” front grille, along with another Mazda-supplied four cylinder that was modified to run on the Atkinson cycle, making 156 hp. The DOHC 2.5-L gas engine was paired with an AC permanent-magnet electric motor, good for 106 hp and 166 lb-ft of torque. Together, the duo produced 191 hp.

The Fusion’s hybrid system was more advanced than the one in the Escape. Its Sanyo nickel-metal-hydride battery pack was smaller and lighter, and didn’t require a weighty cooling system. Ford’s engineers worked overtime to get the powertrain software to toggle imperceptibly between electric and gas propulsion. Japan’s Aisin supplied the standard CVT automatic transmission.

Compared to the Toyota Camry Hybrid, the Ford is the better driver’s car with its more nimble chassis, nicely weighted steering and a taut, if slightly stiff, suspension. It can hustle, taking 8.5 seconds to reach 96 km/h. Owners reported a wide range of fuel-efficiency numbers, not surprising as the Hybrid is sensitive to driver inputs and ambient temperatures.

Minor mechanical gripes centred on weak air conditioner performance, squeaky brakes, a “surging” CVT transmission, and a truculent Sync communications interface. The Fusion Hybrid doesn’t like to be left alone for long durations; starting it weekly will help keep the batteries alert.

2006-08 Honda Civic Hybrid

Having learned from its extraterrestrial two-seater Insight, Honda made its next hybrid virtually indistinguishable from its bread-and-butter Civic. Owners enjoyed the same convenient four doors and seating for five, along with its Jetsons-inspired interior. The only outward clues as to its save-the-Earth mission were its badges and aluminum pie-plate rims.

The Civic Hybrid incorporated a 1.3-L, single-overhead-cam, four-cylinder gas engine connected to a 20-hp electric motor and CVT automatic transmission. Combined output added up to 110 hp, and for the first time the Civic Hybrid could glide on electric power alone at low speeds on city streets. Unfortunately, the wee gas motor felt overwhelmed at supra-legal highway speeds, owners reported.

Around town, the Civic is a pleasant conveyance, retaining some of that Honda “lightness of being” that makes driving a delight. Thanks to its refinement, stout construction, quiet cabin and well-sorted suspension, the Civic Hybrid has been the second-best selling hybrid car in North America behind the Prius.

The single biggest issue is discontent with the car’s fuel consumption, especially after the recall that reset performance parameters to optimize battery life, which compromised economy. Other mechanical bugaboos include defective rear trailing arms that destroy tires (a Civic scourge), and an air conditioning condenser that’s susceptible to road debris damage.

wheels@thestar.ca

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