Meet Lightning – Our $5,000 Prius


Ahhh, Lightning takes in the view

A few years ago, Mrs. Crazy Kicks was kicking ass and taking names as she climbed/ got pushed up the corporate ladder. She received several promotions within close proximity and was making bank. Many of her colleagues were into expensive cars – buying Porches and luxury Jeeps left and right. It seemed like something you needed to look professional at that level – just like you had to have fancy clothes to wear each day. While Mrs. Crazy Kicks did consider getting a new Audi or Tesla, she stayed true to the motto: “It’s not what you make, it’s what you keep.”

Mrs. Crazy Kicks decided to set a better example by getting an economical car that would look ridiculous next to the luxury vehicles bordering her assigned parking spot. Her mom wanted a new car, so Crazy Moms got a gently used Volvo, and we started the search for something practical. After considering a few options, we decided to target a Prius since they are fuel efficient, environmentally friendly, and great for road trips. The market wasn’t the greatest at the time – gas prices were still high, and we ended up looking for months.

We finally found one listed at a pretty reasonable $6,000. It didn’t have the lowest mileage at 120,000 miles, but the price was right enough to warrant a visit. We met at the owners’ home and the car looked good – it had a pristine interior and only a few minor dents. It also ran smoothly, although I did notice some engine noise. After discussing the engine noise, we made an offer for $5500. Deal! The owner fished out the title, but on it were big bold letters: “Rebuilt.” Crap!

The car was really nice though, and the price was good. We asked for a few minutes to look into the title issue. I was able to bring up a vehicle report on my phone, and learned it had been totaled at 60,000 miles for “electrical issues.” At least it wasn’t structural damage, and they did manage to put another 60K miles on the car after the rebuild without any issues. We got back to negotiating and got the car for $5,000 even.

When we got home, we did more research on the vehicle’s VIN and found that the car was totaled because it had been struck by lightning! A fitting name, especially for a hybrid. The engine noise turned out to be a water pump which we replaced for $200. Since then, Lightning has been running strong and we put on another 25,000 miles without any issues. She enjoys rolling in battery mode and sidling up to the check-in office at the town dump – we have to announce ourselves since the attendant never hears us.

During regular driving, Lightning gets 45 MPG which is double what the Volvo was getting. We’ve put on 25,000 miles since getting the car which means about 550 gallons of gas at 45 MPG. Average price of fuel was about $2.50/gallon in the years of ownership, which translates to $1,375 spent on gas. Since the Volvo was using twice as much gas, this also means we saved $1,375.

Over 400 miles on a tank, and just over 8 gallons to fill

Over 400 miles on a tank, and just over 8 gallons to fill

Being efficient on fuel also translates to a much longer range for the car. A fill-up takes about 8 gallons when the fuel indicator is down to 1 or 2 bars which happens at around 400 miles. By comparison, we had to refill the Volvo at just over 200 miles and it took around 10 gallons to fill. That’s double the range, and stopping for gas half as often is especially helpful on long trips through remote places.

I did consider the possibility of having to replace the battery for this car. After all, it’s got a lot of miles and been struck by lightning. But Prius battery failures are pretty rare – many people go 200-300k miles on the original one. Either way I’m prepared to deal with a possible failure. Dealers charge $4,000 for battery replacements, but a quick search will reveal companies that replace your battery with a refurbished one for under $1,000. This would be a great option and cost less than what we saved so far on gas. But if our battery goes, I might try to fix it myself. When the battery dies, usually only one cell in the battery has gone bad. Replacement cells can be gotten online for only $50 and there are plenty of instructional videos outlining how to dismantle a battery, identify the bad cell, and replace it with a new one.

  – Our latest road trip

I will admit, the car is boring to drive, but in a good way. It’s like sitting in a couch as you cruise down the highway enjoying the scenery. And with four doors and a large hatch, there is plenty of room. This combination of comfort, space, and fuel efficiency makes it the perfect road trip vehicle. We have taken Lighting on several trips, including to Asheville, NC and Jacksonville, Florida. And we just returned from a 2 week road trip to the tip of Nova Scotia where we explored the Cabot Trail on Cape Breton Island. We drove more than 2500 miles through Canada and plan to share more details of the trip in the next few posts.

I took a look on Craigslist and there are even better hybrid deals to be had. Gas prices are low and the masses are back to buying SUVs. The prices on a used Prius are much better than when we were looking. With some patience, you could snag your own $5,000 Prius – maybe even one that hasn’t been struck by lightning.


17 thoughts on “Meet Lightning – Our $5,000 Prius

  1. Nice ride, Mr. CK! And a good story to match. Sounds like a great deal on a really nice car. A Prius is top-quality in fit & finish in my book.

    And I wouldn’t worry about the battery, either. Take a look at CL for a used Prius somewhere like LA where they’re used as cabs and there’ll be tons with 300k+ on the original Duracell. They won’t cost any less than Lightning, and those cars have almost certainly been through way worse than a lightning strike…


    • Thanks, after driving a Prius for a few years I have become a big fan. That’s interesting how much abuse they have taken as taxis.

  2. Sounds like Lightening has been a great car so far. Your overall cost is impressive! We may look into a hybrid next time we are in the market for a car (though it will be several years if I have my way!).

    I’m so looking forward to details of your trip. We went to Maine a few years ago and loved it – I’d love to head further north sometime.

  3. Ms. FP and I also have a Prius. We’re a one car household and try not to drive as much as we can, but the Prius will definitely be our car from now on. It’s not too flashy, but not crummy looking. So as a status car, people don’t think you’re poor, but can’t tell if you’re rich either.

    It gets great mileage of course. Maintenance has been great on it.

    The best part though, it has amazing room to haul stuff for a regular sized car! We are able to fit tons of stuff in it – desks, chairs, other big stuff – and have no issues. Just lower the back seats down and you suddenly have a ton of room. We once hauled an entire couch we bought from Ikea in it, just barely getting it to fit. It’s also really helped us a ton in being able to pick up our trash finds in it!

    The other great thing, you can sleep in it really easily. Just lower the back seats down, thrown down some sleeping bags, and you can sleep completely laying down.

    • That’s funny, we have also hauled a couch in ours 🙂 It’s definitely got the most space out of any hatchback I’ve driven.

  4. Love the name and the story behind it! Does Lightning have a last name, McQueen perhaps? I am proud to drive a small hatchback that holds a surprising amount of cargo. Although I paid more than $10,000 for it eight years ago (for shame!) it is certainly worth less than $5,000 today.

    A $5,000 car is apparently the latest “status symbol.” My friend, the White Coat Investor, just shared how to get rich with a $5,000 car.


    • I will have to think on a last name. McQueen might be a good one for my mountain bike.
      $5k cars are certainly the latest status symbol, and I suppose if your vehicle is now valued at less than $5k it can also qualify 🙂

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