California Hybrid Owners Are In For A Rude Awakening

Posted by


Looks like 2015 will be the Year of Reckoning for California hybrid emissions. Hybrids here haven’t needed smog checks since they hit the market more than 15 years ago, but now they do. That means a vast pool of cars that has never been measured will have to stand and deliver at the smog machine. This is going to get expensive.


My inquiry started with a Prius I was checking out for a client. She wants a Corolla, but this white Prius fit the budget, and so I asked the seller the first and most important question: has it been smogged?

You have to ask about smog, because few sellers know that California demands a smog check performed within 90 days prior to sale, and responsibility for getting it lies with the owner. Some sellers are grateful for the info, because the law makes it easy for unsuspecting buyers to sue sellers who transact without a valid smog. But most sellers are resentful of this hurdle set up by the state. If their car doesn’t pass, then the owner can’t legally sell until it does.

Resentful is a word that will likely describe many CA hybrid owners this year, because this seller’s breezy answer of, “Oh, a Prius never needs to be smogged” is untrue. In fact, it has always been untrue; the lilt of his voice indicated a feeling that California just likes Priuses, and it wanted to reward those green-leaning owners with an exemption. Nope, it was a logistical issue: most smog shops lacked the equipment needed to test hybrids, which don’t idle long enough to run on the dynamometer.

The year 2015 finds most smog shops loaded for bear. They still have the BAR 97, an antiquated machine that ‘s reserved for cars 1999 and older. Newer cars and hybrids are now graded by a Data Acquisition Device, which surprisingly uses no tailpipe emissions to come to its conclusions; instead, it gets what is described by a Bureau of Automotive Repair rep as a highly accurate reading of each emissions system component.

With this equipment on the ground, the California DMV has begun requiring biennial hybrid smogs, which will be the rude awakening that accompanies the mailed 2015 registration forms. And of course hybrid sellers must now provide a valid smog prior to sale.

This is no small thing. Hybrids can be expensive to fix, usually either at a specialized independent shop or at a dealer. And if you’ve played the smog game for any length of time – it tightens to a yearly requirement for older cars the state deems as fitting a High Emitter profile – you know the potential for pricey surprises when the car seems fine otherwise. Or you know the dread of having to clear the Check Engine light before the BAR 97 would take its first whiff. Smog tests are necessary to keep car exhaust in check, but they can feel like a booby-trapped drudgery, one that hybrid owners have not had to deal with.

Now they do, and this pool of cars with decade-old air/fuel sensors, EGRs and catalytic converters is poised to cause hybrid owners some real budgetary grief. Even worse, the unsuspecting buyers who know nothing except the seller’s assurance that hybrids never need a smog will be turned away by the DMV, unable to register their rides until a valid smog is produced.

The BAR rep noted that the DMV’s premature rollout of smog notices has pushed renewal-related smogs requirements until April. But, I asked the rep, what about the 90-day transfer? Where does that leave this Prius in this moment of time?

“In limbo”, he replied, although he leaned strongly toward it needing a smog.

As far as my client goes, I’m recommending that she stick with a Corolla that hit the dyno every two years, rather than a Prius that up until now has been out to pasture. Begs the question – will used hybrids lose some resale value when the new requirement and potential repair costs become common knowledge?

Here’s a handy chart from the Bureau of Auto Repair to further spell out the requirements.