Buying a used Electric Car (under $20k)
First – a special thank you to John and Anne for requesting this blog topic!
Much of the insight on this topic will come from owning one of the first Nissan Leafs which I purchased in 2011 and sold it privately in 2018. In addition, I took a test drive of a used Chevy Volt and BMW i3 last weekend – lots of fun :), and have done additional research.
Buying a new or used car is highly personal decision – this blog is focused on understanding the used electric car market, and considerations in buying a used electric car – I won’t be providing detailed reviews of the cars, or opinions on their functionality – I’ll leave that up to you to do as you would with any other car purchase!
Availability of used electric cars
If your buying a used electric car, you need to consider that only cars that were sold new in a reasonable volume will now have selection of used cars:
Hot cars like the Model 3, or the Chevy Bolt were either not being sold, or had very little in sales 2+ years ago – so they are not yet a great used car option
Some electric cars were sold in limited geographies (e.g. California) – so they are only an option for people living in those geographies
Some electric cars had so little volume (e.g. under 5k/year), your unlikely to find one used
There are a variety of “Plug in” hybrids – these are hybrid cars that have a plug in option to extend the electric range – I will not be covering these in this blog
In the sub $20k used electric car category – there are really only three options right now:
Chevy Volt – an electric car, with a backup gas engine (once the battery is depleted, the gas engine powers the wheels, like a regular gas car) – keep in mind, Chevrolet will be discontinuing new production of the Volt – and the Volt is different from the Bolt!
Nissan Leaf – an all-electric car (really the first all-electric car sold in reasonable volume)
BMW i3 – an electric car, with an option for a “Range Extender” (aka REX) – the range extender is a gas-powered generator that will re-charge the battery while you’re driving, to give you extended range
Overall, the availability of these cars is limited (relative to a gas car like the Honda Civic), and the pricing varies. With limited cars available, you will have fewer feature, color and condition options available.
Historically, new Electric Vehicles retail prices have been higher than their comparable gas counterparts. I would argue this is not the case for Tesla Model 3 … but regardless, there is the perception (I believe), that there is a price premium for electric cars – so how does this play out in the used market?
I compared the three electric cars to the Honda Civix LX – to me, the “gold standard” for a used sub-20k car – here is what you find:
The Nissan Leaf is significantly less than the Honda Civic (even though new, its quite a bit more)
The Volt is priced similarly to the Civic for less recent years (2012-2014) – but keep in mind, in my opinion, the Volt it more similar to the Accord/Camry than the Civic …
The BMW i3 is pricier than the Civic – there is a premium for buying a BMW branded car – if that’s important to you, then the i3 is a deal compared with the Civic
Of the three electric cars discussed in this blog, there is significant “range” in their rated EPA range! Below is a chart outlining the electric and gas range of each of these vehicles.
Note, a limited range can be a good thing – we had our recently licensed teenage drive our Leaf and there was never any discussion about taking the car on roadtrips (it was also great never providing gas money …)!
How much range do you need? A rule of thumb I use is your typical daily driving needs should be 25-50% of the cars rated range – the reason for this is that no one wants to use the last 10-20% of the battery, its best to only charge an electric car (on a regular basis) to 80%, and there are many variations that exist in actual range available/used (with similarities to a gas car). Finally, you should have buffer for the less typical days where you need more than 25-50% of the cars rated range.
If you plan to consider the Nissan Leaf, you need to read the section below on the Nissan Leaf battery (as it relates to range!)
Reliability and maintenance
I cannot speak highly enough of my experience with the Nissan Leaf’s reliability. Beyond my personal experience, looking at sites like Edmunds for total cost of ownership, and Consumer Reports expected reliability yields data points all over the map (for all cars, not just electric cars!) – you can use these sites for your research/insight
For the Leaf (and the i3 without the Rex), there are many typical maintenance activities you will never experience: no oil changes, no gearbox maintenance/issues, no exhaust system/muffler issues, no radiator coolant or radiator issues – and, for all of these cars, your break pads will last a REALLY long time (since the breakpads are used to supplement the regenerative breaking!)
Tire wear – I did find the tires on my Leaf wore more quickly then I expected – part of this is the weight of the car (the battery!), part of it is the use of low-resistance tires (to increase range) – my simple solution was to use Costco to replace the tires the first time, then go back to Costco and have the rated tire mileage warranty cover the cost of the replacing the tires when they wore out sooner than the warranty period.
I would expect the Volt, and the i3-Rex to have higher maintenance requirements from the additional gas engine/generator
Here is a picture of a Tesla model 3 motor after 1 million mile test – looks like new! How will the Nissan/BMW/Volt motors fare after 100k or 200k or more miles – I don’t know, but there is every reason to believe they will hold up far better than gas motors!
Battery (and degradation)
The battery degradation of most electric cars (Volt, i3, Tesla) has been limited – for instance, Tesla owners report 5-10% degradation after 100k miles!
These owners are not experiencing what many feared early on based on their experiences with laptop or cell phone batteries
Back in 2011/12, many assumed/feared that an electric car would experience degradation over time, and would need to be replaced (at a high cost)
All reports I have seen on the Volt, i3 and Tesla have shown nothing of the kind
Tesla, BMW, GM have each of invested in the battery chemistry, and in active cooling systems that keep the battery cool while its being charged
Unfortunately, Nissan, a pioneer in electric cars is giving the electric car and the battery in the electric car a bad name – there are many reports outlining the typical gradual degradation of the Nissan Leaf batteries over time/mileage, and many believe the #1 culprit is Nissan’s continued choice (they are the only ones) to not include an active thermal management system with the Nissan Leaf (a good recent report on this topic: https://www.preprints.org/manuscript/201803.0122/v1)
Does this mean you should not buy a Leaf?
I WOULD definitely buy a used Leaf, but you need to:
Be aware of the degradation of the battery of the car your buying – not all cars have experienced the same level of degradation!
Be aware of likely degradation over time that you will own the car
Understand your range needs, and the net range after degradation
The used Nissan Leaf can be one of (if not the best) values in used cars (of any kind) – they are cheap to buy, cheap to maintain – and if you have light range needs, then the range available (even with battery degradation) can make it a perfect car – you can buy one for as little as $5k, spend nothing on gas, little on electricity and little on maintenance – for a person needing a car for 10-25 miles per day, I can’t imagine many better choices …
Charging the car
Do not forget that you need to have a game plan to charge the car – this applies equally to used as it does new electric cars
Most used electric cars should come with a portable charger that will at a minimum plug into a 120v socket (be sure the car has one before buying the car!) – this charger will charge at a rate of ~2-4 miles/hour (so overnight – ~12 hours, that would be 24-48 miles)
You can install a 240v charger that will charge anywhere from 10-30 miles/hour (depending on the charger, the car and the amperage to the charger) – a charger will cost ~$500-$800, and you may need an electrician to run a circuit to the charging location (the cost of this can range quite a bit) – some states have rebates to offset the cost and/or installation of a home charger
Used electric cars (in my opinion) are tremendous value, as:
They do not command the price premium the new ones do
They should be less costly to maintain – a particularly attractive attribute for a used car
They will be equally cost effective on gas savings as new electric cars are
But, the options for longer range cars (like the Model 3 or Bolt) are not yet available in any quantity/sub $20k price range – so you need to understand your range needs as a key factor in buying a used electric car