Buying a Used EV
Buying any car can be tough, but buying a used car can feel like a trial by fire. With thousands of electric cars (EVs) coming off of leases, used electric cars are more available and affordable than ever. But how do you know if you’re getting a good deal or what to look for in a used electric car? Our Used Electric Car Buyers’ Guide will take you through the finer points of used-EV shopping.
Why Buy a Used Electric Car?
One of the barriers to electric car adoption for many people is the price. Although EV leases can be less expensive than many believe, new cars are still out of reach financially for many people. Fortunately, as early adopters sell their EVs for newer models, these vehicles become available for very affordable prices. The enjoyment and benefits of driving electric can be had for much less than you think.
Used EVs can be a bargain for a number of vehicle use-case scenarios.
Families with more than one car: In a two car household, both cars are rarely used for long distance drives simultaneously. People with easy access to electricity (120V outlets often are sufficient) who never drive their EV more than its range in a day (which could be between 60 and 100 miles, depending) could find a real bargain with a used EV. Whether for weekend shopping trips, or a shorter daily commute, EVs can make the perfect second car for many families.
A used EV can also serve as a great first car for younger drivers who live with their family, given the low maintenance cost and the ability to fuel at home. (For parents, the limited range could be a plus, too.)
Used EVs are great buys for younger drivers. Plug In America board member and CalETC Executive Director, Eileen Tutt, found an excellent deal on a used Nissan LEAF when shopping for her college student daughter. Eileen and her daughter found a nearby dealership that specialized in selling used EVs. The dealer’s knowledge and expertise in electric car sales enabled Eileen to have a smooth buying experience.
First, Eileen called ahead and told the dealership what she was looking for (a safe, affordable and reliable ride for her daughter), so the dealer was ready with a car that fit her needs when she arrived. Second, Eileen had the dealership check on the health of the battery pack (sure enough, the battery checked out). In fact, the whole transaction took just twenty minutes in the dealership. Eileen’s experience proves a painless EV buying experience can be had, if you know where to look and do your homework ahead of time.
What Should I Look For When Shopping for a Used EV?
Many of the benefits EVs have over gasoline-powered vehicles shine through when looking for a used car. Because EVs have few moving parts, there are fewer components that can break or fail, which means as a prospective used car buyer, there are fewer items on the “worry checklist.”
If you’re looking for an all-electric car, you don’t need to worry about timing belts, fuel pumps, fuel injectors, manifolds, transmissions, pistons, oil filters, air filters, crankshafts, camshafts, inlet valves…the list goes on! With all-electrics, it’s really all about the battery, which is great, because it means that you only have to look at one powertrain component. So when shopping for an all-electric, you can cross out all the internal combustion engine-related items from your checklist, and simply add “battery.”
With plug-in hybrids (PHEVs), you still have to take into account the gasoline components; however, since a certain percentage of miles traveled will be in electric mode, the number of miles on the gasoline drivetrain is usually much less than the total mileage of the vehicle. This varies based on the percentage driven on electric, but in the case of PHEVs with larger battery packs and thus longer electric range (like the Chevy Volt), it can sometimes result in the gasoline drivetrain accruing less than 10% of the total vehicle mileage. In other words, a PHEV with 100,000 miles on it might only have 10,000 miles on the gasoline engine. That means the gasoline drivetrain may last a very long time before it needs major servicing, saving money on maintenance.
Determining the health of the battery is a key concern when purchasing a used EV. The most effective way to measure battery health is through on-board diagnostics. This is generally done by a service technician, who plugs into the car and checks the car’s internal battery stats. A reputable used car dealer will be able to (or may have already) performed this check on the vehicle and should be able to tell you the health of the battery. Unfortunately, as with any used car purchase, there are risks. An unscrupulous dealer might lie about the battery health and even reset the internal stats, making the dashboard battery readings appear artificially rosy. It’s important to deal with a trustworthy seller.
Most certified pre-owned EVs that are sold by new car dealerships have a healthy battery (that’s what makes them certified). Regardless, the dealer should be able to perform this check if asked by a prospective buyer. Identifying the health of the battery is very important – a used EV with a healthy battery is almost a new car.
However even an EV with a somewhat degraded battery could be appropriate for your needs and could be a super deal. Using the LEAF as an example: a LEAF with one to three capacity bars missing has lost about 15-25% of its battery capacity. For a 2011 – 2016 LEAF, that means its range is likely now 50-70 miles. If that’s good enough for your needs, it could be the cheapest possible vehicle to do what you need it to do. As an electric car, it won’t need continual service, and the electric fuel cost be minimal. Something to consider!
A Deeper Dive, by Tom Saxton, Plug In America’s Chief Technology Officer: Ideally, the best way to know the capacity of a battery pack is to fully charge it (by the vehicle’s definition of full), then fully discharge it (by the vehicle’s definition of time-to-stop) under controlled conditions. The “controlled conditions” is the difficult part; you can’t really do it by driving and, as far as I know, no one is currently offering this service.
Internally, EVs have an estimate of how much energy is currently in the pack. It is required in order for them to offer the driver an estimated remaining range, but generally speaking, that information is not shared with the driver. Even when there is a state-of-charge indicator on the dash, it is relative to the current pack capacity. An EV that has lost half of its capacity will generally still show a 100% charge on the dash. There are three vehicles that offer an estimate of the pack’s current capacity.
1 – The Nissan LEAF. The LEAF shows capacity bars on the dash in addition to a range estimate. The bars are confusing in that they are not all equal. The first bar represents 15% of the battery capacity, so a LEAF that has lost 14.9% of its capacity still shows all 12 capacity bars. After the first capacity bar, each successive bar represents 7.5%, so the second bar goes away after approximately 22.5% of the original capacity is lost.
The range estimator could show any of a wide range of numbers because it depends on your most recent driving. Drive up a big hill before charging and it will show a low remaining range because it will assume that you will continue to drive up big hills. Drive down a big hill before charging and it will show a large remaining range.
Another potential problem with the LEAF is that the capacity bars could be reset by an unscrupulous or un-knowledgeable service tech, which restores all 12 capacity bars. It takes weeks or months for the car to gather enough data to get an estimate of the pack’s true capacity and update the capacity bars on the dash. That being said, a Nissan service technician can see if a LEAF has been recently reset, so it is possible to get accurate information from a trusted dealer with a knowledgeable service technician.
There is also an aftermarket tool called LeafSpy that shows what is claimed to be the LEAF’s internal battery pack capacity estimate as both amp-hours (Ah) and state-of-health (SOH). SOH is the current Ah estimate as a percentage of the Ah of a nominal new pack. The SOH number does correlate with the capacity bars shown on the dash, so it’s a good indicator, but probably also can be reset along with the capacity bars.
2 & 3 – Tesla Models S and X. Both of these vehicles show the current state-of-charge in energy units (rated miles or ideal miles, as per a driver preference). This number is not like the LEAF’s estimated range remaining, but rather true energy values. To get an idea of a vehicle’s pack’s capacity, charge the vehicle to 100% and note the rated or ideal miles; however, beware of the difference between rated and ideal. 265 rated miles is approximately equivalent to 300 ideal miles. An original 85 kWh Model S had an EPA rated range of 265 miles, and thus would show approximately 265 rated miles, or about 300 ideal miles, when fully charged. After a Model S has lost enough capacity to be down to 234 rated miles on a full charge (88% of original capacity), it would show 265 miles if set to show ideal miles, thus tricking a potential buyer into thinking it has a full capacity battery.
No other EVs offer any clue to a car’s battery pack capacity. One could charge the vehicle to 100%, drive it until it stops and note the distance, but it is difficult to do that under controlled conditions since everything from the speed, temperature, driving style, number of stop lights and the driver’s weight affect range.
Which Used EV Models Should I Look For?
If you’re looking to buy a used all-electric car, the most popular models to look for are the Nissan LEAF, Ford Focus Electric, Fiat 500e, and the Chevy Spark EV. These cars have been on the road for more than half a decade now, and owner surveys have proven them to be very popular models. As they’ve become available to second or even third owners, they frequently can be purchased for a very affordable price.
If you need a bit more range (perhaps quite a bit more), and are willing to spend a little more (perhaps quite a bit more), then consider looking at a used Tesla Model S. These cars are universally loved by their owners. Tesla offers certified pre-owned vehicles, and Teslas are also available from private sellers, sometimes at a lower cost.
If you’re in the market for a used plug-in hybrid, there are several options, including the Chevy Volt, Ford Fusion Energi, BMW i3 REx or Ford C-Max Energi. Since it first hit showroom floors in 2011, over 100,000 Volts have been sold in the US. Additionally, since owners generally drove the majority of their miles on electricity, the gasoline engines have relatively few miles on them and have had few issues.
Knowledgeable Dealer vs Private Seller
After you’ve considered what cars appeal to you, when shopping for a used EV the next question is, “where do I look?” Used EVs can be purchased from franchise dealerships and manufacturers (Tesla), used car dealerships, and private sellers.
Some used EVs sold from franchise dealerships may be certified pre-owned (CPO) and come with an extended factory warranty. For many electrics, this warranty is identical to the original warranty; for instance, the Nissan LEAF’s CPO Extended Warranty is 8 years/100,000 miles including a battery warranty (failure only, not capacity). For others, the battery has its own specific warranty, but, in general, the battery is warrantied for longer than other components. Tesla, for instance, offers an 8 year, unlimited-mile battery warranty (but no capacity warranty) on CPO Model S’s.
A second option involves seeking out EVs on used car dealer lots. The experience here can vary widely; some used car dealers specialize in the sale of used EVs, while others may offer little to no assistance. The primary advantage of going this route is reduced prices you may not find at a franchise dealership, but buying from a used car lot means no certified pre-owned warranty.
What about a private seller? Buying a used EV from a private seller is no different than buying any used car from a private seller. The car is sold “as-is” and the seller won’t be able to ensure that all of the components of the car are in optimal condition. Additionally, there is no warranty. The trade off is generally a lower purchase price compared to buying from a dealership. Still, there is a much greater assumption of risk when buying private, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad idea. Again, a great deal can be had on a used EV from a private seller, and often times these vehicles are in excellent condition due to the meticulous upkeep by their early-adopter owners.
Electric cars often feature a unique warranty formation; there’s the bumper-to-bumper warranty, the powertrain warranty, and the battery warranty. The bumper-to-bumper warranty is the same as with gasoline-powered cars, while the powertrain warranty typically covers the entire powertrain except for the battery, which itself is covered in its own warranty. This battery warranty is typically of a longer duration in years and miles than the powertrain warranty; however, as discussed earlier, these battery warranties are not usually capacity warranties. Rather, these warranties cover defects with the battery, not capacity loss due to use.
Buying a used EV is a great opportunity to drive electric at low upfront cost, and the reliability of the EV powertrain makes the used car buying experience a little less scary. If you are interested in getting into an EV, but have been holding off because of the price of a new one, consider looking at the nascent used EV market. There are some real gems out there waiting to be snatched up.