Used Toyota Prius 1.5 HSD 2004-2009 review

People might be bored reading about the Prius but a review on four Priuses (2004, 2005, two 2006s) that my family owns that ran a total of 913k kms (570k miles) should be interesting right? And how does a family end up with four Priuses to start with?

Doesn't look like a 16 year old car. When we first arrived at home, the neighbor asked if it was new.

Used Priuses, especially the Generation 2 that were made from 2004 to 2009 are becoming a bargain to buy, especially for the MPG and features you get in return.

How did it all start?

We need to go back to November 2017, to the start of the ‘Prius Revolution’ in the family. Due to a sudden company relocation, my wife had no other choice but to drive to her office. It was time to buy our first car. I knew I wanted something for her that was cheap to maintain, had a reliable automatic transmission, came with cruise control, AC. This criteria only left the Prius in play. It was interesting that there was no other options for the budget we had to work with (~$6,000).

I started to read up on the Prius and started looking at cars to buy in a week’s time, so the paperwork would be ready for my wife to use the car from the following week.

I found a a 2004 with 247k km ( 154k miles) on the clock. When I spoke with the owner on the phone to schedule the test drive, he mentioned he had time until 5 PM after which he had to attend his birthday party on the day of the test drive. On the way there, I made a pit stop at a gas station to buy a bottle of champagne as a gift, hoping to start out a conversation with a stranger on the right foot. I was nervous as this was the first time that I was buying a car, so the experience was new to me.

The meet could not have gone better with such an ice-breaker. He was surprised! The drive went well, there were some minor things the car needed but it had a full service history and when I asked for a 500 dollar lower asking price than list price, the seller accepted. I guess the champagne worked.

Fast forward 5 months, my brother and sister-in-law also had their eye on the Prius. They knew about hybrids and after a couple of times riding in our Prius, they decided to pull the trigger on two 2006s with 180k kms (112k miles).

 

The fourth one, a 2005 I bought for myself last year with 222k kms (128k miles) with a full service history.

The 2004 has now 293k kms (183k miles), the 2005 242k kms (151k miles) and the two 2006s around 200k kms (125k miles) each.

What is it like to drive a hybrid for someone who has never driven one before?

It is actually a quite fun car to drive. Especially in the city. Smooth, silent, tram-like acceleration. Seamless gear changes - well of course as it has a gear-less transmission. Having enough electric charge to last a 5-15 minute in silence in a traffic jam. Awesome, relaxing car to drive. We only drove ’normal’ ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) cars before but those gave me a feeling of always being in a hurry. The Prius is a zen place to be in. It was considered to be futuristic when it came out but it is sort of still is after 16 years. The cockpit feels like a space shuttle but in reality a truly practical space.

Futuristic cabin that gives it an airy feel.

I’ve never seen climate controls in any other car that were placed on the steering wheel for easy control. Very practical.

Being able to control the climate control from the steering wheel is very practical.

The cabin has lots of cubbyholes and is very spacious. The car doesn’t look as big as it really is.

Probably the only angle showing how really big the car is. It generally looks much smaller.

Huge leg space in front and back, just like in a Ford Mondeo or VW Passat.

Big leg room in the back. Seats are all the way back. I'm 6'4.

It has a smaller boot space of course than the other two. It is half way between a sedan and an estate, making it capable of IKEA runs.

16.1 cubic feet - 408 litres. The cargo cover has a designated space under the trunk floor if we need to put it away.

Seats lay flat. Ideal for IKEA runs.

There is no need for a starter motor nor clutch in Toyota’s hybrid system. That’s two costly things less to service. Power steering is electric and as a result we don’t need to check the power steering oil level as there isn’t any. It’s transmission is sort of a CVT, on which a gear is always engaged so there is no shifting. During reversing, the Prius is powered only by the electric motor. The gasoline engine only runs in reversing to power the batteries. There are two additional components in the hybrid Prius, an inverter that translates electricity from the battery to the motor.

 

The other is the hybrid battery (nickel-metal in the Gen2), responsible for the charge and supplying the cabin with electricity, including the climate control. Yes, the climate control is also electric, making it also working when the 1.5 petrol engine is not running. That is why we can enjoy cool air during the summer in a traffic jam when the engine is not running while the typical cars with stop-start technology can’t, because they have the conventional climate compressor that is only running if the engine is on.

 The engine bay including the Inverter in the top right hand side and the 1.5 engine on the left. 

What is it like to drive a hybrid for someone who has never driven one before?

The inverter for the second generation Prius is very reliable. None of our Priuses had an issue with it. They had some inverter issues in the 3rd Generation Prius in which the hybrid technology changed, but Toyota issued a recall for that. The hybrid battery pack will need servicing but it depends on a bunch of factors. Weather, how regularly the car is driven and for how long. How regularly the EV button is used to maximise electric range. Battery life all depends on these circumstances. A general rule of thumb is that batteries will last a long time if they are driven in normal weather conditions, when it is not too cold nor hot and driven regularly, 14,000 km + (~9k miles +) on a yearly basis.

But don’t worry if your hybrid battery needs servicing. There are alternatives to the expensive dealership fix. You can use an independent hybrid shop to fix your pack for a much cheaper price. You can have the pack changed to a refurbished one. The cost of that usually starting just below $1000 or changing the faulty modules (28 modules in a pack) individually that is much cheaper. There are also videos on Youtube where people change the pack the DIY way or the individual modules, but be aware to only buy individual modules from a trusted source. Your pack won’t last long if you change out the faulty modules to ones that barely meet the voltage criteria. If your Prius’ battery goes before it’s 10 years old, check with a Toyota dealership first before changing the battery. Toyota has a 10 year program to change all hybrid battery packs if they need servicing. That 10 years now only applicable for the Generation 3 made from 2010-2015, but at least there are options. One of our 2006 Prius’ pack needed servicing and it only cost a few hundred dollars to fix 7 modules and change the bus bars connecting the modules by a hybrid shop. The price of fixing the battery can be substantial in terms of the value of the car but it could be even costing less than changing a clutch, a turbo or doing a major service to an engine on a normal car. I would say that is not a bad statistics from the four Priuses that covered a total of 913k kms (570k miles). Matt from Rhode Island reported no faults with the hybrid battery in his 2007 Prius that he bought new, now clocking 555k kms (347k miles).

There is a 12 volt battery in the trunk of the car responsible for supplying electricity for the car to start. It is harder to pick up signs of it loosing charge as we won’t hear an engine trying to turn over in a regular car. There is an onboard diagnostics program on the Prius in which we can check the charge of the 12 volt battery when starting up. If the charge dips below 10.5-11 volts, we can look for a new battery. It will be more expensive than regular batteries as these are AGM specific, but at least they will last for 8-10 years.

The Atkinson cycle petrol engine was made for regular stop-starts and is very reliable. It needs the regular service but we won’t need to worry about any expensive part braking. But there is one thing in hybrids we need to keep in mind. Priuses can burn oil. Even though it is normal (for all cars), hybrids can develop a thirst for oil after a few hundred thousand kilometres, miles. Two out of our four Priuses burn oil. My 2005 burns about 0.3-0.4 l (0.3-0.4 quarts) of oil every 11k kms (~7k miles). The car has 242k kms (151k miles). That is normal. Basically I don't need to top up between oil changes. My wife's 2004 burns about 1 litre (1.05 quarts) of oil every oil change cycle. That car has 293k kms (183k miles). I top up the 2004 once between oil changes just to be on the safe side, but that oil consumption is also acceptable. I know Gen II Priuses however that burn 1l (1.05 quarts) of oil every 3k kms (~1800 miles)! That is not acceptable and in this case the engine needs a major service to fix it. That service can be costly. Before buying a Prius, ask an independent shop that specialises on Priuses or hybrids in your area for how much would they fix such a problem. It is always good to know what to expect if you would buy a Prius.

Some models (2006 models for some reason) can have timing chain issues irrelevant of their mileage. The symptoms start with a check engine light (CEL) that sometimes comes on. Code P0016. The more time passes, the more often the CEL will come on and eventually stay on permanently until it is changed. One of our 2006s' needed it changed but this fault is not usual.

Sometimes the engine water pump might leak. It is something very cheap to fix and to inspect. It had to be changed in two of our Priuses. The first sign of a leaking water pump is the absence of hot air when heating the cabin in cold temperature. We will find the coolant level close to the minimum in the coolant reservoir under the hood. If we see small flakes around the inside assembly of the water pump, we can also suspect the pump to be leaking.

 Even though these are old cars, they don't tend to rust. There can be surface rust but nothing significant in general. Even though the urban legend says aluminium can’t corrode, the edge of the bonnet made from aluminium is a place where spots of corrosion can pop up. 

 There is one strange fault with the Gen2 Priuses, and that is water finding its way inside the trunk area, leaking into the two side pockets and the spare wheel. The cause of it can be fixed in a few minutes and few dollars. Water can leak through tiny hairline cracks on the top side of the trunk - hinge area where the black plastic cover ends on top of the car. We used silicone to seal it on ours' and the cabin is 100% water tight ever since. 

 The tiny hairline cracks sealed up. 

 One really easy thing to see if it needs changing or not is the front strut boots. If we take a look at the suspension without taking anything apart, we will see a rubber boot on top of the struts. The car does not need to be lifted. Check if those are not torn. If yes, they need changing, because debris that finds its way inside the strut can make it worn out more quickly. It was changed on our 2004 and one of the 2006's. We replaced the strut boots only. There is no need to replace the strut itself. Even if it means taking out the strut to change the rubber boot, it costs less this way then to change the struts. 

 Easy to inspect the front strut boots for tear. 

If we find the buttons in the bottom right hand side of the steering not working properly, the clock spring needs changing inside the steering wheel, a quick and easy service.

Check for missing plastic hooks in the driver's footwell. There should be two, keeping the rubber mat in place. If those are missing, the mat could shift towards the accelerator pedal and making it stuck in the mat, causing a quite stressful situation. It happened to my wife but luckily the pedal disengaged shortly after. If anything like this happens, try to remain calm and shift to neutral and brake.

 Important to keep the OEM tire size 195/55 R16 (European models) and the tire pressures in mind. Usually the tire shops inflate the tires to a lower pressure, causing unnecessary tire wear resulting in more frequent tire changes.  

There was a recall for the inverter coolant pump. The way to diagnose a faulty pump is to take off the inverter coolant reservoir cap while the engine is running and we should see the fluid inside moving around. If it is not moving, the pump needs replacement. Pablo reported no inverter coolant problems on his 2007 with 528k km (330k miles) that he is the first owner of.

If the brake fluid is not changed regularly, we might have an ABS actuator failure. It needed changing in my 2005 but that is applicable to any car with ABS, not only for Prius. This is also something very uncommon though. Jesse who has put ~1.4 million kms (865k miles) on his Priuses, never had an issue with the ABS actuator.

  Leave this uncovered for the hybrid cooling fan to do its work if necessary.  

There is the bulletproof transmission that in order to keep bulletproof, the transmission fluid needs changing every 90k kms (56k miles). This is only written in the Japanese service manuals for some reason. Even though it is not written in other service manuals, it can be recommended to change it.

Rarely the dash can go dark all of a sudden. A capacitor needs to be soldered in the back of the speedometer and there sources on the internet on how to do it.

Sometimes the MFD, central screen, can go dark in US models but there is again third party solutions for it to fix with warranty.

Catalytic converter thefts is something owners need to know about, especially if located in California where only OEM cat converter is the option to be fitted due to regulations. I had a discussion with Peter on the topic who has been working together with a company developing a protective shield that can be installed in the Prius.

The odometer can stop at 299,999 on 2004 and 2005 models, that a dealership can reset of the owner prefers. Our 2004 is approaching that figure. I'm not sure yet if we would have it reset or keep track of oil changes using the Trip A or B option. Will see. I guess the engineers did not really think these cars will be driven a lot.

  The 2004 and 2005 models had the gray tail light assembly part for the brake lights compared to the 2006-2009 models where is it is white.  

The brake light LED can wear out on the 2004, 2005 models. The only way to fix it is buying the tail light assembly. One LED from the six (on each side) might not light up, affecting the brightness of the other five and from a distance, it will seem that they are not lighting up at all but in reality their light is just very low. The LEDs are inside the assembly and they are not changeable like a bulb. This is also something that can come up on a car with 16 years of age. We had to buy an aftermarket assembly for the left side of our 2004 costing $100, so no biggie.

  Out of the 6 brake light LEDs, if one goes, the brightness of the others will drop, causing the entire assembly to be changed.  

Are they worth it?

Even though we were not looking to buy a hybrid in the first place, now we cannot imagine driving a normal ICE car anymore. ICEs are just boring and inefficient in the sense of wasting energy. We can only think of driving a plugin or a fully electric car as the next one if one of the Priuses has to go. It won't be easy to find an alternative one as the Gen2 Prius has no real competitors. Toyota well got a lead on the market with this one.

There is always risk in buying used cars. Even though the above problems can seem to be a lot of things going wrong on a Prius, in reality, they never all occur in one car as the examples show. Maybe one or two things need servicing but on 16 year old cars with the mentioned mileages, that's remarkable, especially for the MPG and features we get in return.

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