A Simple Guide to the Used Electric Car Market
Among the reasons people had to avoid first-generation electric vehicles, cost concerns topped the list. It was hard to find the value proposition of a $40,000 car that could only travel 75 miles. Five years after the Ford Focus Electric debuted, the jury is still deliberating on that point.
But times have changed. In 2017, the electrified Ford sells for less than $10,000 on the used market. The Focus Electric is not alone. Used models of the Nissan Leaf, Smart Fortwo Electric Drive and Fiat 500e start around $6,000. These prices speak for themselves, and the odometers inside the cars rarely read higher than 40,000 miles.
Of course, used electric car consumers have to consider more than cost and mileage. Besides the normal checks for accidents and cosmetic defects, shoppers need to evaluate:
- Potential battery degradation
- Fast-charging capabilities
- Warranty terms
To help the cause for consumers and fleet owners, we put together a used EV buying guide that covers these concerns highlighting the best (and worst) deals on the market.
Electric Vehicle Market Overview
As 2017 plug-in models enter the market, the price of a long-range vehicle still exceeds that of a regular gas vehicle. The Chevrolet Bolt EV, the most practical of new models, starts at $37,495 before incentives. After counting incentives, the Bolt EV’s value increases, but can still be considered expensive compared to a standard compact or midsize car.
Lower-range models like Hyundai Ioniq Electric (124 miles) and the ‘17 Focus Electric (114 miles) start around $30,000. This price hardly strays from the mark where the Leaf sold over 100,000 units to U.S. consumers since 2011. With incentives and depreciation factored in, it’s difficult to consider a used EV a good deal unless it falls below $20,000.
Actually, some used electric cars now represent better deals than gas-powered counterparts. Wholesale prices in August 2016 showed a Fiat 500e (approx. $6,500) going for less than a regular 500 ($7,000). A 2013 Focus Electric ($6,500) also undercut its gas sibling ($8,000) by a sizable sum.
Here is a case-by-case look at recommended cars and others to avoid.
Recommended Used Electric Cars
Electric vehicles we recommended combine decent range, solid fuel economy and average or better reliability scores at a reasonable price.
As the top-selling EV in the world, fleet managers and consumers will find more Nissan Leafs available on the secondhand market than any other option. There are several options, grouped by date of release:
- 2011 and 2012: 73 miles at 99 MPGe
- 2013: 75 miles at 115 MPGe
- 2014 and 2015: 84 miles at 114 MPGe
- 2016: 107 miles (30 kWh) at 112 MPGe
Prior to 2013, range loss was more likely due to flaws in the heating system, so these models sell at low prices but are not great used options. (Slow charging is also a way of life in 2012 and earlier models.) The 2013 model, though it features improvements over the debut Leaf, is not recommended due to reliability issues that arose in Consumer Reports testing.
At time of writing, the best deals were available on the 2014 and 2015 Leaf. A national search on Cars.com revealed over 200 models from these two years priced between $6,700 and $10,000. Since fast-charging ports were an option, the best buys will include this feature.
Questions about battery degradation depend on the specific model, but ask to see any used Leaf fully charged. If you see fewer than the full 12 bars on the charge meter, the car has lost capacity. Nissan offers a warranty on degradation exceeding four bars (66%) before 60,000 miles. Batteries themselves have a warranty to eight years or 100,000 miles.
Along with the Leaf and Mitsubishi i-MiEV, the Chevrolet Volt was one of the green car pioneers in America. It began as a plug-in hybrid with impressive range (35 miles) in 2011 and morphed into the current model that emphasizes all-electric driving with 53 miles of range on a full charge. Early Volts could travel as far as 380 miles before charging or filling the tank.
Most used models on the market are Volts from 2015 or earlier, so range is lower than 40 miles on electric power for any model you will find. The good news here is that Volt batteries have been nearly perfect since the plug-in launched. GM said there have been zero cases of battery replacement due to general capacity degradation on a Volt.
Because Chevy sold Volt throughout North America, used models flooded the scene in recent years. Over 1,000 models were available in the U.S. at time of writing, with the best deals between $8,000 and $13,000. There is no fast-charging option on Volt.
Tesla Model S
There are few cars as unanimously well reviewed as Tesla Model S, which debuted in 2012. Price was always the primary obstacle for buyers of the performance EV, but early models have dropped below $50,000, making this car a good buy in some cases.
The one holdup with Model S is the poor reliability of 2012 and 2013 models. However, the 2014 model year was a strong one for the EV maker, and used car shoppers should focus their attention there. A 2014 Model S has two battery sizes:
- 60 kWh: 208 miles of range
- 85 kWh: 265 miles of range
Performance models came with the 85 kWh battery. Tesla 60 kWh batteries come with a guarantee of eight years or 125,000 miles, while 85 kWh batteries have no mileage limit over the eight years. The best deals were listed between $45,000 and $60,000.
Since its debut in 2013, The Fiat 500e has garnered strong reviews for performance and overall EV experience. There has only one been one model with minor variations, so used car shopping here is relatively simple. 500e offered 87 miles of range (116 MPGe) in each of its first three model years and 84 miles (112 MPGe) in its most recent years (2015 and 2016).
Though drivers cannot fast-charge this car, it does feature a standard 6.6 kW onboard charger that allows you to fill the battery in about four hours on a Level 2 system. Fiat only offered this car for sale in California and Oregon, so the used market exists almost entirely on the West Coast.
Price-wise, used EV shoppers can get excellent deals on this capable model. Over 200 used 500es were available between $5,200 and $9,000 at the time of writing, with the majority in the Los Angeles area.
Other recommended models:
- BMW i3 (2015 or later)
- Honda Fit EV (low volume, CA only)
- Toyota RAV4 EV (low volume, CA only)
- Chevrolet Spark EV
Used Electric Cars to Avoid
In the case of used EVs we could not recommend, we took the car’s original specs, reliability scores and pre-owned prices to make a judgment.
Smart Electric Drive
Bargain hunters will see the Smart Fortwo Electric Drive in any used EV search. There is a reason for it: the Smart ED features little range (68 miles), no fast charging and virtually zero cargo space. Driving character is nothing to gush about, either.
Fleet owners and consumers who want a remarkable deal on a low-priced used EV would probably do better in a Focus Electric. Though Ford’s EV features just 75 miles of range on a full charge and has no fast charger, you will find a 6.6 kW charger in most models. The Focus Electric also features solid cargo space.
Though you will struggle to find a better looking car, the Fisker Karma is a plug-in hybrid you would do well avoiding. Notoriously plagued with build quality issues immediately following its 2012 release, Fisker Automotive never had the chance to have its flaws corrected before the automaker went bankrupt.
As a result, you cannot trust any of the available models to be reliable on any count. Meanwhile, you cannot find a Karma for sale at less than $40,000 – before you find a mechanic to fix whatever ails it. For that type of money, you can find a Tesla Model S with much better EV performance from 2014.
Used car shoppers will also find many Mitsubishi i-MiEVs on the market at low prices. At its peak output, this car can only travel 62 miles on a full charge, so used models will feature minimal range to go along with the unappealing style.
A regular on the “worst-of” lists since it debuted in 2011, Mitsubishi’s electric offering features almost no power at the wheel and takes a full seven hours to charge on a 240v (Level 2) charging system. Overall, i-MiEV seems to consolidate everything that frustrates plug-in drivers into a single car.
Other used models to avoid:
- Think City
- Coda electric sedan
- Toyota Prius Plug-in (due to barely any electric range)
Tips for Getting the Best Deal on a Used EV
Shopping for used plug-ins is unique for a number of reasons, so you should approach the purchase with a few things in mind.
- Note model year differences. Because technology advanced so quickly in the first generation of EVs, you will see major differences between model years. Study the specific model year in question so you understand the pros and cons of the vehicle.
- Observe charging. You can learn a lot by charging a vehicle, so include a session in your test. It will give you the opportunity to check on battery degradation, charging speed and ease of use.
- Take a long test drive. Sellers may tell you what you want to hear, but you will learn what you need to know from taking an extended test drive. Make notes about the car’s range at the start and compare it with the odometer when you finish your drive. You’ll want to see how it handles on the highway.
- Get battery information. Battery warranties vary depending on the model, so know the full details of the car in question before you close the deal.
We hope you found this used electric car buying guide helpful. Have any hidden gems you’ve found on the market? Let us know in the comments section below!
*featured image via Paramount Motors