Because hybrids are a comparatively recent phenomenon, not too many have reached the used-car market. Those that have tend to be costly. This was especially true in mid-2008, when gasoline prices hit the roof and customers clamored for fuel-efficient models. There's a logical reason why secondhand hybrids are in short supply: relatively few have been sold new. Hybrids garner a lot of publicity, but modest sales. Around a million have gone to U.S. customers since 2000.
Toyota's Prius is the hybrid everyone's heard about, and it's the top seller. In the first 10 months of 2008, more than 142,000 were sold. That's more than half the total hybrid sales for the period. Honda sold a little over 29,000 Civic Hybrids, while Toyota delivered 42,000 Camry Hybrids.
Altogether, 22 hybrid models have been marketed since 2000, including nine passenger cars, 11 SUVs, and a pair of pickup trucks. Most of them did not appear until 2005 or later. Top sales year was 2007, when about 330,000 were sold. That year, customers drove home more than 1.6 million vehicles. So, hybrids amounted to barely over two percent of the total.
Skyrocketing 2008 fuel prices had an immediate impact. Between late 2007 and late 2008, the Prius dropped 19 percent in wholesale value, said Ricky Beggs, managing editor of the Black Book (a widely-consulted vehicle valuation guide). But that figure is misleading. "When gasoline prices went to $4 a gallon, Prius prices went absolutely berserk," Beggs added. They "went up a large amount," peaking in September, "and then came down." From October to December, that 2007 Prius dropped $6,000 in wholesale value from its peak, which translated to an even greater decline in retail price.
In June 2008, Norm Olson, national sales operations manager for Toyota Certified vehicles, saw previously owned Priuses going for $4,000 to $6,000 more than their new-car price. "Now they've gone to a realistic price," he said at the National Remarketing Conference, in October.
Other hybrids "didn't go crazy strong, like the Prius did," Beggs said. Ford's Escape Hybrid probably has the next-best value retention. The 2007 model lost barely over $1,000 in wholesale value between late 2007 and late 2008. "That's fantastic in the market we've been in," Beggs noted. Here's a quick rundown of the hybrids that might be found secondhand:
Hybrid Passenger Cars.
Toyota Prius (2001-03): Along with Honda's Insight, the compact Prius sedan was one of the first hybrids in America. Sales were scant, but it got people used to the possibility of hybrids as regular transportation. Initially priced around $20,000, used first-generation Priuses can command as much as half that figure.
Toyota Prius (2004-09): Redesigned for 2004 in larger, midsize four-door liftback form, the second-generation Prius was the least-expensive hybrid. It also had the highest fuel-economy estimate: 60-mpg city and 51-mpg highway (reduced to 48/45 mpg during 2007). A 1.5-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder gasoline engine works with an electric motor and continuously variable transmission (CVT). Though prices eased late in 2008, a year-old Prius can still command figures that approach its original new-car cost-above $20,000. Even a five-year-old has lost only about one-third of its initial value. For that purely economic reason, Priuses aren't the most sensible secondhand choice. A redesigned 2010 Prius will be unveiled at Detroit's auto show in January 2009.
Toyota Camry Hybrid (2007-09): Introduced for 2007, as the popular midsize sedan was redesigned, the Hybrid promised 33-mpg in city driving and 34 mpg on the highway. A 147-hp, 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine matched Hybrid Synergy Drive. A year-old Camry Hybrid might cost almost as much as a new one, while a 2007 model is still worth about 85 percent of its initial sticker price, which topped $25,000.
Honda Insight (2000-06): Honda's two-passenger Insight was the first hybrid car in America. Insights had the gasoline engine dominant, with the battery providing added boost. Other hybrids have been battery-dominant. Ultra-lightweight construction helped keep EPA estimates high.
Honda Civic Hybrid (2003-09): Honda's first four-door hybrid debuted for 2003, with an Integrated Motor Assist system that included a 1.3-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine and an electric motor, driving a continuously variable transmission (CVT). With low-rolling-resistance tires, the 2008 Civic Hybrid earned an EPA estimate of 40 mpg in city driving and 45 mpg on the highway. Honda hybrids haven't held their value quite as tenaciously as Toyota's, but a two-year-old Civic may command three-fourths of its original sticker price, which neared $22,000.
Honda Accord Hybrid (2005-07): A hybrid-powertrain version of Honda's midsize sedan joined the smaller Civic Hybrid for 2005, but barely lasted three seasons. A 253-hp, 3.0-liter V-6 worked with the electric motor. Variable Cylinder Management technology deactivates certain engine cylinders at times, to further reduce fuel usage. Final Accord Hybrids got a 24/32 mpg EPA mileage estimate. Secondhand prices are comparatively reasonable. A 2005 model shouldn't cost much more than half of its $30,000 new-car price.
Saturn Aura Green Line (2007-09): Late in the 2007 model year, GM's Saturn division introduced a variant of its recently-launched Aura midsize family sedan with a hybrid powertrain, similar to the one used in the Vue Green Line SUV. For 2008, redesigning of Chevrolet's Malibu sedan included a related Malibu Hybrid (2008-09). With EPA estimates of 24 mpg city/32 mpg highway, the Aura/Malibu Hybrids have experienced depreciation similar to gasoline-engine equivalents. Lexus GS 450h (2007-09): A year after introducing its RX 400h SUV, Lexus unveiled a luxury-performance hybrid sport sedan-the first rear-drive hybrid, meant to demonstrate that performance and mileage can mix. Producing 340 total horsepower, working with a 3.5-liter V-6, Lexus Hybrid Drive promises V8-like performance with 22 mpg city/25 mpg highway fuel economy. Expensive when new, the GS 450h has depreciated faster than Toyota hybrids.
Lexus LS 600h L (2008-09): Redesigned for 2007, Lexus's flagship LS 460 sedan got a hybrid-powertrain alternative for 2008-with a six-figure price sticker. Clearly, it's the most posh hybrid on the market. Don't expect to pick one up for much less than $85,000.
Nissan Altima Hybrid (2007-09): Introduced well after the 2007 model year began, the Altima uses a powertrain similar to Toyota's: a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine coupled with an electric motor, driving an Xtronic continuously variable transmission (CVT). The EPA estimated 35-mpg city/33-mpg highway. Altima Hybrids have sold mainly in the West, making them seldom-seen on the used car market. Secondhand prices are lower than those of a comparable Camry Hybrid.
Hybrid SUVs and Crossovers.
Ford Escape Hybrid (2005-09): In 2005, the compact Escape became the first hybrid-powertrain SUV. Considered a "full" hybrid, it operates on gasoline, battery alone (up to 25 mph), or both. A 2.3-liter gas engine blends with a 70-kW electric motor, driving a continuously variable transmission (CVT). Acceleration rivals a conventional V-6 Escape. In 2008, the Escape Hybrid got an 34-mpg city/30-mpg highway EPA estimate, dipping to 29/27 mpg with 4WD. Mercury's Mariner Hybrid, introduced for 2006, is an upscale version of the Escape. Mazda has marketed another Escape cousin: the Tribute Hybrid. Year-old Escapes have been selling near their original sticker price, but a 2005 goes for closer to half that amount.
Toyota Highlander Hybrid (2006-09): A hybrid version of Toyota's midsize sport-utility vehicle debuted for 2006, in base or upscale Limited trim, seating either five or seven. Separate front and rear motor/generators are used on four-wheel-drive models. The redesigned 2008 Highlander Hybrid got full-electric capability and a 27/25 mpg EPA estimate. On the used-vehice market, the Highlander Hybrid has depreciated considerably faster than Ford Escapes or other Toyota hybrids.
Lexus RX 400h (2006-09): Launched for 2006, the RX midsize SUV was the first hybrid luxury utility vehicle. A front-drive model joined the original 4WD version for 2007, with an EPA estimate of 27 mpg city and 24 mpg for highway driving. Lexus Hybrid Drive blends a 208-hp V-6 with electric motor-generators. Secondhand RX models have held their value a little better than Toyota's Highlander.
Saturn Vue Green Line (2007-09): GM's Saturn division tucked a gasoline/electric powertrain into its compact Vue sport-utility vehicle. While acceleratiing, the motor/generator could augment power from the 170-hp four-cylinder engine, but the first Vue could not run on battery power alone. Production halted in mid-2007, awaiting the redesigned 2009 Vue, with a 2-Mode Hybrid system that can run on battery alone. Early Vues are priced moderately. Chevrolet Tahoe, GMC Yukon, and Cadillac Escalade Hybrid (2008-09): Soon after GM redesigned its full-size SUVs for 2007, hybrid editions were added, featuring the new 2-Mode Hybrid system that can run briefly on battery power. Big hybrid SUVs can be found for attractive prices, but 4WD fuel economy of 20 mpg (city/highway) might not satisfy everyone.
Chrysler Aspen/Dodge Durango (2009): Late to the hybrid fray, Chrysler launched a pair of big SUVs with gasoline/electric powertrains for 2009. Equipped with a 5.7-liter gasoline V-8, these two can run on battery power.
Hybrid Pickup Trucks.
Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra: Only GM has put hybrid powertrains into pickups. Their first try (2005-06) yielded semi-hybrid operation, with only modest fuel-economy gain. Few were sold, and secondhand models aren't expensive. GM's 2-Mode Hybrid system is available for 2009 pickups.