Electric vehicles (EVs) have, in a very short time, gone from a quirky niche product to a genuine option for many new car buyers. Car industry body the Society of Motoring Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) says that, in 2021, more new EVs and plug-in hybrids will be registered than in the whole of the decade from 2010 to 2019.
Many of the fears that have previously put off potential EV buyers, such as range anxiety and battery longevity, appear to be receding. Charging infrastructure remains a concern, but a lot of work is being done to improve this around the country.
Initial costs for new EVs are still high, with most models priced at more than £30,000, but the purchase or leasing cost is offset by much lower running costs.
And as more and more new EVs have appeared on our streets, there has been an inevitable follow-on in the growth of used EVs. The choice of cars is still fairly limited, but it is growing rapidly and gaining more options. But is buying a used EV a good idea?
Yes it can be, but you need to buy carefully. Obviously when considering a used EV you should do all the things you should when buying any used petrol or diesel car. But there are also several specific things you need to factor in when buying electric.
Where to buy
Firstly, where should you buy a used EV? If you are after a particular model then a main dealer could be a first port of call, as they will be increasingly taking in and re-selling trade-ins as owners update their cars. They will also have intimate knowledge of the model having sold it in the first place and be able to advise on various EV specific-questions that you may need to ask.
Main dealers are also, of course, the most expensive option. Independents and online suppliers dealing in used vehicles are now paying increasing attention to EVs, while it is worthwhile checking out the growing number of EV-specific independent outlets – they deal only in electric models so generally know a lot about them, and they can offer a range of different models to choose from, not just from one manufacturer.
Buying direct from a private seller remains the cheapest option, though as with i/c cars it comes with risks of potential hidden issues with the car and no comeback once you’ve bought it. However this can be slightly less of an issue with
Regardless of what’s powering your car, it’s important to know that it’s been properly serviced and maintained by the previous owner(s).
EVs are significantly simpler mechanically than are traditional cars and more reliable as a result – there are no engine, fuel system, traditional transmission or exhaust systems to wear out or go wrong.
However, there are specific areas to pay close attention to. Software updates are important to EVs, so you need documented evidence they have been applied. The car’s documentation will also show exactly which model of car you are looking at, vital as we will explain shortly.
Tyres and brakes
While there is far less mechanically to look out for during a test drive, tyres and brakes are vital areas. EVs are heavy due to having to the weight of the battery, so wear on the rubber, the brake pads and discs needs to be checked closely.
Most EVs also have some form of battery regeneration – during deceleration and braking the electrical energy produced is fed back into the battery to help replenish it. There will often be three or four settings and the difference in feel between them on the road is obvious, so try them all and make sure they are working correctly.
The most focus when buying a used EV, however, surrounds the battery and its potential range. Generally, the newer the model the more battery range it is likely to have. This is mainly because the technology has been moving on quickly and driving ranges have been stretching as the electrical infrastructure is improved.
Even specific models can offer major differences in potential driving range due to changes during the life cycle, so it is important to do your homework.
For example, the Renault Zoe was first launched in 2013 with a ‘real-world’ driving range of less than 100 miles. A new and smaller motor offered in 2015 extended the range closer to 150 miles. Then, a year later, a new battery increased the Zoe’s potential range towards 200 miles. And in 2019 a new Zoe arrived with a more powerful motor, a bigger battery and a range of 245 miles.
As with petrol or diesel cars, updated models may sit alongside existing versions in a showroom, so the age of the car is not necessarily an obvious identifier to what battery capacity it has. The Zoe is a prime example of ensuring you know exactly which version of an electric car you are looking at.
Battery capacity is measured in kWh (kilowatt hours) – the larger the number, the bigger the battery.
Batteries not included?
One aspect you should be less worried about is declining battery performance over time. While the vast majority of EVs use lithium-ion batteries, they do not degrade significantly with use – the battery pack of an EV some years old will not have quite the same range as when new, but it will retain the vast majority of its capacity and not fall off a cliff as does the average battery in a laptop, tablet or phone.
This does throw up something else to check, however. Fears of battery fall-off in the early days did lead some manufacturers to offer two-part deals on their EVs – you bought the car but leased the battery, with an agreement that it would be replaced if its capacity fell below 70% of how it was when new.
Nissan and Renault both tried these schemes but dropped them when it became clear that battery degradation was not nearly the issue that had been feared – but if you are buying an older EV make sure it doesn’t have a leased battery otherwise you will find yourself with an extra monthly bill.
And finally on the subject of the battery, have another look at the documentation and specifically the warranty. EVs usually come with two warranties – the manufacturer’s standard one for the car, varying from three to seven years depending on badge, and a separate one for the battery. These are usually eight years and 100,000 miles, with again a commitment to replace the battery if it fails to hold its charge above 70%. You can also now get independent EV-specific warranties for older cars.
As well as having bigger and better batteries, newer EVs are also often able to charge faster than older ones. Again, this may be something that was upgraded during a car’s production cycle. If two cars have the same battery capacity but one can charge faster, that car will need less time plugged in every time you need to charge it.
Charging speed is measuring in kW, so look for this number when comparing used EVs. The larger the number, the faster it charges. However, batteries don’t always charge at a fixed rate as it depends on a number of factors, so a car with twice the charging rate won’t always charge twice as fast. But will be a lot faster most of the time.
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Make sure you check that all the charging leads supplied with the car are present and in good condition – you don’t need the extra bill of buying new ones.
One unhelpful element of EV ownership over the last decade has been a lack of consensus among car manufacturers of what sort of charging cables and plugs should be used. As a result, different cars came with different plugs and cables that were not necessarily compatible with a wide range of charging points.
With any EV, you can always charge from a conventional three-point plug (as long as you have the right cable), but the rate of charging is very slow. That means the larger the car’s battery, the longer it takes to charge. If you want your EV to be genuinely useful, you’ll need a cable that allows a faster charge.
Feeling the heat
Conventional petrol and diesel cars put out a lot of heat – in fact, more heat (and noise) than actual power. Most of the time, that’s simply wasted energy. But when it’s cold, the heat generated by the engine is used to help warm the cabin.
Because an electric motor is much more efficient than a petrol or diesel engine, it produces very little heat (and very little noise). Great for efficiency and for the planet, but not so good for warming you up in the middle of winter.
One of the best and most efficient ways to keep you warm on a cold winter’s morning is by heating the seats and steering wheel, while an electric heater gradually warms up the rest of the cabin. Some manufacturers have made these standard on their electric models, while others charged extra.
So if you’re looking at used EVs, keep an eye out for cars with heated seats and a heated steering wheel – and test them to make sure that they work.
Most electric cars have an app that allow you to connect your smartphone or tablet to your car. These apps will usually allow you to programme a pre-heating function, so you can turn on the heater half an hour before you intend to leave home, for example.
You can also check how much charge is currently in your battery, and some will even allow you to remotely unlock and start the car. Of course, you don’t want to rely on that in case the company’s global systems fail and you can’t start your car, so always best to still carry the car key…
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Finally, you will need to add on the cost of installing a charging point for your car at home – if you are in a position to charge at home, that is. Cut-price deals with charging point suppliers usually only come with new cars, so used car buyers generally have to cough up about £500 for a proper home wallbox. Charging from a regular three-point plug is almost never a viable long-term solution, so factor a home charging point into your budget.
It’s not as bad as it sounds, however. There are grants available under the Government’s OLEV scheme that can cover up to 75% of the cost of installing a home charger, but again you need to check carefully before committing as the scheme has a list of approved charge points and car models.
So is all the effort worth it? Yes, as it could enable you to join the switch to electric now, rather than waiting until you are forced to. As the move to electric cars gathers pace, the used market will continue to grow. Knowing what to look for when buying a used EV will help you find the best car for the best price.
Additional reporting by Stuart Masson