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For anyone who has ever looked at a shiny new electric vehicle only to feel shock and despair upon seeing the price, used EVs are an intriguing and more affordable option. They are also a bit of a mystery.

Like any car shopper, would-be buyers of used EVs have questions. The difference is that, until recently, it was hard to find meaningful answers to questions about old EVs because there simply weren’t that many out there.

In the market for a car? Read GlobeDrive's guides for your next vehicle purchase

But now that cars like the Tesla Model S and the original Nissan Leaf have been on the road for roughly a decade, we’re beginning to better understand how battery-powered cars age.

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So is it a good idea to buy a used EV? The short answer is yes, especially if you’re on a budget and are eager to jump onto the battery-powered bandwagon. Shopping for one is a lot like shopping for any used vehicle, but there are a few EV-specific issues to keep in mind.

Battery longevity

Just like the battery in your smartphone, the battery in an electric vehicle will degrade over time. That degradation will reduce an EV’s total driving range.

Geotab Inc., a Canadian company that uses GPS and other data to help monitor vehicle fleets, analyzed detailed data from 6,300 EVs in real-world use and found battery degradation was modest, with an average capacity loss of 2.3 per cent a year. An EV that had 240 kilometres of range when new, for instance, would lose roughly 27 kilometres of range after five years, the report explained.

The exact amount of range loss varies by make, model and how the car was used. Studies by Geotab and others have found that frequent use of DC fast chargers and driving in hot climates can (slightly) increase battery degradation.

A Seattle-based startup firm called Recurrent Motors Inc. plans to offer battery-health reports for used EVs – similar to a CarFax vehicle history report – but, for now, doing that research is up to buyers. Some cars will display their remaining battery capacity – which tells you roughly how much range has been lost – and you can ask sellers for details on how the car was used.

As battery technology improves and capacity increases, degradation becomes less of an issue. New EVs are able to cover much longer ranges – 400 kilometres or more on a single charge – so normal battery degradation shouldn’t be a deal-breaker on used models.

Degradation is a more serious issue for the oldest EVs – such as the first-generation Nissan Leaf – because they didn’t have much range to begin with. As a result, those EVs can now be bought used for under $10,000. They may have less than 100 kilometres of range but could be a great option if you’re looking for an affordable second car for short trips.

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Depreciation

How much range a used EV has is a key factor in determining its value. Compared to the mountain of depreciation data the industry has on gas-powered cars, there’s still relatively little on EVs. To further complicate things, data on old EVs isn’t necessarily helpful for predicting the deprecation of new models, since driving range and battery technology have improved quickly and continue to do so. As a result, you’ll see some conflicting information out there.

An oft-cited report from iSeeCars, a U.S.-based aggregator of used-car listings, found that EVs depreciate faster on average than conventional cars. Only Teslas bucked that trend. Where a BMW i3 will typically plummet in value by 60 per cent after three years, the Tesla Model 3 lost only 10 per cent of its value, the report found.

Research by Carwow, a large online used-car marketplace in the U.K., found the opposite. Its data showed the average used EV depreciated more slowly than conventional cars.

Chris Harto, a senior transportation policy analyst at Consumer Reports, said that if you take into account U.S. federal purchase incentives, all EVs with a range over 200 miles (320 kilometres) are expected to hold their value similar to gas-powered vehicles over the next five years. His findings are based on new data from analytics company ALG and were published in a Consumer Reports study last year.

Maintenance and battery replacement

One big reason to buy a used EV is that they’re cheaper to maintain. Harto’s Consumer Reports study also found that EV drivers were spending 50-per-cent less on repairs and maintenance over the lifetime of their vehicles. That’s largely because there are fewer moving and wearable parts in electric cars, he said. The savings add up to thousands of dollars over a vehicle’s lifetime, in addition to what you’ll save by not having to buy gas again.

If you’re worried about the possibility of a dead EV battery and the eye-watering cost of replacing it, Harto said dead batteries appear to be rare. They’re also potentially covered under warranty. “We’re still limited on data, but what we’re seeing so far is that it’s not a major issue on most EVs,” Harto said. You’re probably going to get 250,000 to 350,000 kilometres out of a vehicle before the battery might fail, he estimated. (That’s roughly the same sort of lifespan you can expect from a conventional car before its motor or transmission might fail.)

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Even back in 2014, research by the U.S. government’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory concluded EV batteries could last 12 to 15 years in moderate climates or eight to 12 years in extreme climates.

“As far as I am aware, most EVs offer an eight-year warranty on the battery in Canada,” wrote Cara Clairman, founder and CEO of Plug’n Drive, a not-for-profit devoted to the promotion of electric vehicles.

Tesla warranties the batteries in its Model S and X for eight years or 240,000 kilometres, with a minimum 70-per-cent retention of battery capacity over that period. Most other EV batteries are covered up to at least 160,000 kilometres, but be sure to check the details with the automaker before making a purchase, if only for peace of mind.

Incentives

The Canadian federal government’s iZEV incentive program takes up to $5,000 off the price of new zero-emissions vehicles, but it doesn’t apply to used EVs. However, there are other incentives and rebates for used EVs, depending on where you live.

In Ontario and British Columbia, rebates for used EVs are available through Plug’n Drive and Scrap-It, respectively. Both are independent, non-for-profit organizations backed by the automotive industry, power utilities and others.

The provinces of Quebec and Nova Scotia offer government rebates of up to $4,000 and $2,000, respectively, on used EVs.

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New or used

Scouring the classifieds for a used EV, you’ll quickly notice there isn’t much choice out there. Between 2011 and 2019, only 81,000 new fully electric vehicles were registered in this country, according to Statistics Canada. Over the same period, around 16 million new gasoline-fuelled vehicles hit the road. A recent search on Autotrader.ca turns up just 2,100 used EVs for sale across the country. For reference, there are 6,000 used Honda Civics alone on offer.

Since it’s still a relatively new technology, EVs are evolving more rapidly than their gas-powered counterparts. “We’re just now starting to get what I would consider mainstream consumer EVs … so it’s probably two or three years before there are a lot of really good options for consumers on the used market,” Chris Harto said.

Buying a used EV means you won’t get the longest range or fastest charging speeds, but depending on your needs and budget, it might well be a tradeoff worth making.

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