What can I expect in owning a used Prius?
April 12, 2013 8:35 AM   Subscribe

In an insanely generous offer, my husband's parents are planning to give us their used Toyota Prius sometime next month. My understanding is that they plan to get a new car, don't really need the money from selling it, and are concerned that our current car is getting to be unreliable and thought we might like their old Prius when they replace it with something else. My father-in-law recently had it appraised and says it's worth $11,000. It has 125,000 miles on it. It's silver. That's all I know about it, but they're the type of people who pay very careful attention to maintenance schedules, drive their vehicles gently, and do all the recommended and required repairs and maintenance at the dealership, so it's probably in very good condition.

I've always wanted a hybrid or electric car because I care a lot about the environment and our carbon footprint, but have never been able to afford one. We currently own a 2002 VW Jetta Wagon with 120,000 miles. I bought it in 2005, gently used with 30,000 miles, and I've been caring for it myself ever since. It's well taken care of, but has quite a few dings, dents, and scratches from city living. It lived most of it's life in Southern California, but since we moved to Chicago in 2010, the weather and road conditions here have taken a toll. We recently put new brakes and spark plugs in and I keep up with oil changes, but it needs new struts and I've been reluctant to pay for that. It also has a really annoying problem where the mechanism for adjusting the seat up and down vertically will fail sometimes as you're getting into the car or trying to adjust it up where it just falls down with a thump. I am very short, my husband is not, so there's a lot of up-and-down whenever we swap driving duties and I imagine this was hard enough on the shitty plastic mechanism somewhere in the seat that it just is wearing out. To repair that is like $2000, so I just deal with the annoyance of it. Despite those problems though, the Jetta is in really good shape, provides a lot of room for moving things (and has Yakima roof racks on it for moving larger things), and it has fewer miles than the Prius in question.

Owning two cars is not really sensible for us. We live in the city and drive very rarely--probably less than 4,000 miles per year. Mainly we commute by bike or public transit and use the car for days when the weather is dreadful and we wouldn't be well-served by transit, or when my husband needs to carry his heavy music gear to and from band practice and gigs (although he's not in a band at the moment, this has come up in the past). We also use a car for occasional out-of-town camping trips with our dog, or taking the dog to and from the vet. So insuring, registering, and maintaining two vehicles is probably not wise.

Obviously, I should just sell the Jetta and take the free Prius, right? What can I expect from owning a Prius with that many miles on it? What sort of maintenance is required on them? If the battery needs to be replaced, what kind of carbon footprint results from that (and would that even be offset by the gas savings, given how rarely we drive)? Is Craig's List the best place to go for trying to sell my Jetta, or is there some other option that I'm overlooking? Given the problems with the Jetta, how much should I even try to sell it for? Does anyone have a good recommendation for a Prius mechanic or Toyota dealership service shop in Chicago? How hard is it to do minor repairs on it at home (I am not in the habit of paying a mechanic to replace bulbs, wiper blades, etc.)?

Thanks, car-knowledgeable MeFites! I'm certainly not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, but I like to know exactly what to expect from things, and The Internet has a lot of conflicting information.
posted by booknerd to Travel & Transportation (21 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
This is encouraging on the battery issue, which is the most significant difference between this vs. anything else as a used car with high-ish mileage.
posted by thelonius at 8:41 AM on April 12, 2013

Toyota dealership service shop in Chicago

This is far from you, but I really like the Grossinger at North and Clybourn.

The folks there have always been really friendly to me (and were actually really cool about it the time I took my car in after a tow and they found out it had gotten screwed up by the truck and I was really broke and also I had just broken my foot and I started crying) and the building is a pretty decent place to hang out in (it's relatively new and one of those "green building" initiatives). They're also cool with letting dogs hang out (they even have treats behind the desk) if you want to bring Toby with you during an oil change.
posted by phunniemee at 8:46 AM on April 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

We own a used Prius, and haven't had any major problems with it. (I do think that the battery needs replacing on ours, though.) My husband drives it every day; if you have specific questions, mefi-mail me and I'll ask him. On the whole, though, we love ours.
posted by sarcasticah at 8:48 AM on April 12, 2013

I've also had success using the Grossinger at North and Clybourne for my Toyota Yaris.
posted by garlic at 8:54 AM on April 12, 2013

1. If the Prius has been well-maintained, the high mileage on it won't be an issue. My husband and I bought a used Prius with similar mileage on it, about two years ago. The previous owner had done all the scheduled maintenance exactly on time (all the receipts and records were tucked in the glove compartment). The car runs like a dream: quiet and smooth. Since we've kept up on the maintenance, it's kept running beautifully.

2. The hybrid battery is less of a big worry than people make it out to be. Yes, it would be expensive to replace. However, the odds of having to replace it are nowhere near as high as many people think. When we were considering buying our Prius, my husband asked our mechanic how many Priuses he's seen that needed hybrid battery replacements. Our mechanic said he hadn't seen one yet. Our mechanic works on a ton of Priuses, so I found that encouraging.

I have no idea about the total carbon footprint of replacing the battery and how it compares to the reduction in gasoline usage. I recommend not stressing out over-much about the details of the environmental impact reduction, though. I enjoy my Prius not because I think I'm saving the world with it, but because it's a good, reliable car that saves me a lot of gas money.

3. Minor repairs at home: You can replace wiper blades yourself. Technically, you can replace headlight bulbs yourself too -- but I'm here to tell you, it's a giant pain in the butt and not worth the hassle. You have to reach in from under the hood to access the headlamp bulbs, and the layout under the hood is such that you have to awkwardly twist your wrist and squeeze your hand in around a bunch of things, and feel around blindly for the connections. I can barely get my hands in there, and I have little hands. I just pay my mechanic half an hour of labor ($64 where I live) to take off the front bumper and replace the bulbs.

Headlight bulbs are also kind of expensive for the Prius. Like $90. Toyota dealerships will try to jack you for a lot more than that, too, so buy the bulbs yourself and have an independent mechanic install them. This is the one downside I've found to owning a Prius.

I'm not in Chicago, so I can't speak to the mechanic recommendations.
posted by snowmentality at 9:04 AM on April 12, 2013

We LOVE our Prius. Just a beautiful car. Best car I've ever had, and I've had about 7 over many decades.
posted by musofire at 9:16 AM on April 12, 2013

Toyotas are incredibly reliable in general, and the Prius even more so.

I own a 2005 Prius that I bought new, which is now at around 100k miles. I've driven it cross-country (corner-to-corner, ~3000 miles) 3 times now.

Because the car uses regenerative braking and shuts down the engine while moving sometimes, the parts wear out much more slowly - you can go farther between oil changes, and I haven't even yet replaced the original set of brake pads.

So far the only repairs have been:
* tail light that kept going out (under warranty)
* glove box that warped the dash when opening (also under warranty)
* Replacement of 12v starting battery (not the main one, but had a special vent that made it cost ~$300)

The hybrid systems were warrantied for 7 years, and I suspect that replacement of the main battery will become an issue at some point now that the warranty is over. A quick web search tells me this would cost about $2500 for a new battery and significantly less for a rebuilt battery. This is a significant expense, but considering how much I *haven't* spent in repairs over the years I think it all evens out.

You might want to look into the service lifetime of the battery, and see if the local dealership offers some kind of diagnostic on the hybrid systems. If you will profit from the sale of your Jetta, you might want to put that money away toward repairs depending upon what you find out about the expected maintenance costs.

Note that with as little as you drive, you may not see the kinds of gas savings that others do. When I lived in Orlando I was doing mostly short trips and getting about 40mpg, but after moving to Spokane where the speed limits are lower, hills are common, and we're making longer trips we're seeing about 50mpg now.

The premium we paid for the car has taken years to recoup in gas savings, and I'm guessing that the carbon footprint of making the battery has taken years to recoup in lower emissions. About the only "common good" benefit of the hybrid is that we're using less fuel and thus reducing our dependence on a non-renewable and foreign-sourced resource. I'm okay with this as those weren't the reasons I bought the car. I bought it because I love it, and still consider it one of the best purchases I've ever made. I would only consider buying a Prius again if I were in the market for a new car today.

Feel free to MeMail me for any more information.
posted by tkolstee at 9:21 AM on April 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Do you have numbers on the MPG for each car? If the VW is diesel, the gas savings may not be as much as you think. Our 2010 Jetta TDI gets very close, within a couples of miles per gallon, to what we used to get on our 2004 Honda Civic Hybrid. Obviously YMMV on the cars in question, but it may be worth taking a look at.

You should list the pros and cons for each vehicle for your situation. The Prius will indeed probably come out on top, but you never know until you compare them in detail. A couple of things in the VW's favor are the cargo space (probably significantly more in the VW) and the fact that you know what problems you have with the VW whereas the Prius's problems are unknown.
posted by 0 at 9:21 AM on April 12, 2013

We bought a first gen Prius, used, a bunch of years ago. The battery will need replacing soon-ish, our awesome not-the-dealer garage tells us, but they started saying that a couple of years ago and it's still working fine. We have spent very little above regular maintenance costs (oil changes) over the years. The biggest regular cost is actually the tires, since the good kind of tires you want for a hybrid aren't cheap.

We average 46 mpg (most miles are freeway miles).
posted by rtha at 9:33 AM on April 12, 2013

Oh, and again if the VW is diesel and it's also manual transmission, I know more than one person who would pay a premium for it. Not in your area, unfortunately, but just noting that there is niche market for used manual Jetta TDIs. $6-7K would be a reasonable expectation. I have no idea about value for a gasoline model though.
posted by 0 at 9:38 AM on April 12, 2013

Don't know about selling the Jetta, but my parents and in-laws both have Priuses, one with 100K+ miles on it and one with 200K+ miles and both are still going strong with no problems other than the usual maintenance and repairs. Ours has been reliable for the past 4 years. Maybe I'm a sucker, but I take it to the dealership for maintenance. It's actually less expensive than other places we've been to and it's convenient.
posted by chickenmagazine at 9:41 AM on April 12, 2013

Response by poster: The VW is not a diesel, sadly. It's a 2.0L 4-cylinder automatic. It does have a sunroof, which I admit I'd miss dearly on the rare Chicago warm, sunny day.
posted by booknerd at 9:50 AM on April 12, 2013

There are many examples of prius taxis with 300k and 400k with minimal maintenance.

The two big ticket items that can go sideways are 1) the transmission and 2) the battery - both can be avoided. The transmission has an alleged "lifetime" fluid that should probably be changed around 100k miles (toyota might have even changed their guidance on this). The battery's life depends on whether or not it regularly runs overheated. Over the right rear passenger's shoulder there's an air vent that sucks in air and runs it over the battery via a fan that you will sometimes hear running in hot conditions. If your parents regularly drive with a dog or with the window open, the duct work cooling fan can sometimes get so clogged up that the battery overheats.

Other than that? Might be the most reliable vehicle available today.
posted by NoRelationToLea at 10:04 AM on April 12, 2013

I bought a used Prius two years ago (it's now 6 years old). I do under 5,000 miles a year. I like the solidity of it, it feels very safe. The mileage is insane, and after a while it becomes instinctive to know how to ease off the gas to get the '99 mpg' sign on the display.

The only real issues I've had with it is that sometimes the alarm can be a bit over-sensitive and it can go off for no reason. This has happened maybe four times since I've had it. The boot (trunk) is quite small but this is because the interior is very roomy for the footprint of the vehicle.

I LOVE the reversing camera and onboard GPS, but I know not all models have those features.
posted by essexjan at 10:09 AM on April 12, 2013

We got a used 100K miles Prius back a bout two years ago. If your experience matches ours, you can expect about fifty miles to the gallon, and so far no non-accident caused repairs other than a couple of very minor recall issues that were handled by the dealership quickly and efficiently. Did I mention fifty miles to the gallon?
posted by Cookiebastard at 10:58 AM on April 12, 2013

We have two Prius, my 2009, bought new and my husbands 2007, purchased used, after we'd had mine for a couple of years and loved it so much.
Something interesting that we just found out - he changes our oil and sends it in periodically to be tested by an independent lab. They recommended that we not change my oil for *13,000* miles, based on wear and ... stuff. So that, right there is a considerable savings of money and resources.

I did have my dashboard display go out a few months ago, so we replaced it with a used one from ebay, and so far have had no problems with this one. Doing it himself, my husband saved several hundred dollars.

Every time I get in my car, I think to myself how much I like it and how much I enjoy driving it. I think since you drive so few miles in a year, that buying one new would be sort of a waste, but being gifted a used one is sort of the best of all possible worlds.
posted by jvilter at 12:38 PM on April 12, 2013

Just some anec-data: my brother owned an early model Prius (like the Echo) and put >185k on it commuting from Boston to Providence RI, with no major issues and no battery problems. When he traded it in the dealer said it was the highest mileage Prius they had serviced.
posted by TDIpod at 12:55 PM on April 12, 2013

My wife and I have a 2001 Prius that I got used some years back. It was in great shape and had very few miles on it. The only major issue I've had was something with the computer, but that was under warranty, so it was replaced without a cost to me. Otherwise, it's been great. We drove from California to Mississippi last summer, and have otherwise traveled around California and now New Mexico. There's an issue with the AC now, but it's an inexpensive car to maintain, on the whole. With almost 170,000 miles on it, it's still going great.

If you want to read more Prius stories, there's the PriusChat forum, and you can read about people who have used early model Priuses as taxis, and other adventures in heavy usage. You can also see what issues people have had, what modifications they've made, and other fun stuff.
posted by filthy light thief at 3:04 PM on April 12, 2013

A couple more things: Priuses generally get better miles in town, or on well-paved highways, as they can run on electricity alone at lower speeds. You don't need to plug them in, because the batteries are regenerated by the gas motor (there's a fancy little screen that can show you what's going on, though you'll get used to the sounds of the engine vs motor). If you're stuck in traffic for a long time without driving much, the gas motor will turn on, so don't be freaked out - that's just the car recharging its batteries. Also, using AC will drain the battery faster than most things, so the motor will engage more often when you have the AC running. For example, if you're used to the car "turning off" at lights, it will often keep running if you have the AC on. They don't do great at high speeds or up hills, but they also don't require as much braking going down hills, and you can get a lot of battery recharge through braking when going down hill.
posted by filthy light thief at 3:10 PM on April 12, 2013

If you don't want it , please accept it anyway and give it to me.
I will make my husband give away his Honda Element and then we can be a 2 old-prius family.

Which is another way of saying that this is a great car. I have a 2001 which I purchased used in 2003. It now has 167K miles on it and is running beautifully. Averaging about 43 mpg.
I did have to replace the battery in 2009, $$$, but my other maintenance costs are pretty low. (Of course, I am not big on maintenance anyway, and tolerate nicks and scrapes. I don't pay for things like fixing the A/C or repairing door locks, either. Your pocketbook may vary.)

I am facing a set of worn wheel bearings right now. The dealer wants $1100 to replace 2 bearings, which makes me cranky. My tire guy will do it for 600 and he runs a very reliable shop, so I'll take it to him in a couple of weeks.

Take the car.
posted by SLC Mom at 10:25 PM on April 12, 2013

Also, a little old lady at the dealer's yesterday had a 2001 in for service with only 37K miles on it.
YMMV, indeed!
posted by SLC Mom at 10:27 PM on April 12, 2013

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