The era of the modern electric car began in Canada when the first Nissan Leaf was delivered in September, 2011.
A year later, Tesla blasted onto the scene, and other battery electric vehicles (BEVs) have come and sometimes gone from BMW (i3), Chevrolet (Bolt), Mitsubishi (i-MiEV), Ford (Focus Electric), Volkswagen (e-Golf), Kia (Soul EV and Niro EV) and Hyundai (Ioniq electric and Kona electric).
The BEV population of Canada now numbers almost 80,000. So if your budget doesn’t stretch to a new BEV, how about a used one?
The vast majority of new BEV sales have been in the provinces that provide or used to provide incentives to buy them: British Columbia, Quebec and (until mid-2018) Ontario. But while rebates make new EVs more affordable, they also accelerate their depreciation, says Brian Murphy of Canadian Black Book, which publishes values for used vehicles. While the average four-year-old vehicle retains about 52 per cent of its original value, he says, something like a Nissan Leaf keeps about 38 per cent and the Smart car, about 28 per cent.
First owner’s pain, next owner’s gain. Some early BEVs are now in the $10,000 range, “depending on the usual factors,” says Cara Clairman, chief executive officer of Plug ‘n Drive, a non-profit that promotes electric cars. “That’s great for someone who thought they could never afford one.”
The most populous BEVs are Teslas, but they don’t sell for $10,000. Used ones typically start at about $50,000, either older Model S’s or nearly-new Model 3s. At the low end of the scale are the smaller BEVs that have been around the longest – mostly Nissan Leafs, plus a sprinkling of Mitsubishi i-MiEVs, Ford Focuses and Smart electrics.
If you live in Ontario, you may pay even less: Plug ʼn Drive is currently offering a $1,000 rebate to buyers of used BEVs or PHEVs (plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, which can run on gas or battery power) subject to certain conditions. The rebates will be available only as long as the fund lasts, so don’t wait.
Buying any used vehicle can be a challenge. Nobody wants to end up with a lemon. A used electric vehicle, however, presents its own distinct concerns – but also some bonuses.
The elephant in the room, of course, is battery life, and the cost to replace a dead one. The capacity of the batteries declines as they age, a double whammy in the case of the oldest BEVs, which, even when they were new, had much less range than today’s new ones.
An eight-year-old Leaf with, say, a realistic range of 80 kilometres could still be viable, perhaps as a second car for commuting or local errand-running. But if you ever did need a new battery, that would really mess up your return on investment.
Word on the street suggests battery durability has mostly exceeded expectations. But it’s still relatively early days. When ConsumerReports.org recently updated its reliability ratings for 2019, the 2012 Leaf’s rating for Drive System dropped from Better Than Average in 2018 to Much Worse Than Average now.
Over all, however, the Leaf has a very good reliability rating for all model years except 2014. “EVs are so new, it’s hard to know how they’ll hold up in the long run,” says Jeff Bartlett, a deputy content editor of ConsumerReports.org. “Most are at least average or better in reliability, so we’re cautiously optimistic. And we haven’t seen statistically significant problems with battery packs.”
Most BEVs carry an eight-year/160,000-km warranty against battery failure or excessive capacity degradation, and in some cases the whole electric powertrain is covered. Given the typical usage patterns of EVs, they’d be unlikely to exceed 160,000 kms before the eight-year mark. Be aware, though, that warranties vary by make and model.
Still, job one when viewing a used BEV: Confirm that it’s been fully charged, and then check the state-of-charge gauge.
What will you pay for a replacement battery? The answers are all over the map, if you can get a firm answer at all.
Mercedes-Benz Canada quoted a shocking $12,686.84 for a replacement battery pack for a 2017 or later Smart EQ. And that’s for a puny 17.6-kilowatt-hour battery (most mass-market EV batteries range from 24 kWh to 60-plus).
Our efforts to price a Leaf battery were frustrating, which in itself is illuminating. When Nissan Canada was slow to respond, we called an Ontario Nissan dealer. “Don’t even ask,” the parts guy said, before continuing: “About $11,000.” He couldn’t be more precise than that. And that doesn’t include installation or tax.
But it wasn’t all bad news. Asked how many new batteries he has sold, the answer was “none.”
As well, notes ConsumerReportsʼ Jeff Bartlett, “the cost of battery replacement is going down as technology progresses and production volumes grow.” A local Ford dealer told us the manufacturerʼs suggested retail price for a 2016 Focus Electric battery pack had dropped to $3,951 from $4,400 – and he offered us a deal at $3,500.
Let’s remember, too, that used is used. Conventional vehicles also wear out, or can fail expensively. Two acquaintances were recently quoted up to $7,000 to fix powertrain failures on their seven-year-old SUVs.
Bartlett makes another good point about the cost of EV batteries: As battery warranties start to expire, here comes the aftermarket. “You could get a used battery from a wrecker. Or, you can Google shops in your area that specialize in not only procuring but also testing and reconditioning used EV batteries.”
Another EV plus is that, other than the batteries, there’s not much else that can go wrong. The electric powertrains are much simpler than those on internal combustion engines and “there’s little to no maintenance needed, so there’s nothing to neglect,” says Josh West, remarketing manager for Peel Chrysler in Port Credit, Ont. “It’s hard to get a bad one.”
West is an EV enthusiast, and has carved out an EV niche – one of a small but growing number of such specialists in Canada – within the used-car department he runs for Peel Chrysler.
Electrical regenerative braking means the pads and rotors have to work less hard, West points out. As well, used EVs tend to be lower-mileage than conventional vehicles of the same age.
One EV-specific wrinkle he does suggest checking is tires: “They’re the one wear item that can impact range.” Most EVs came from the factory with EV-specific tires engineered not only for low rolling resistance, but also quietness (because there’s no engine to mask road noise).
So, are you ready to enter the brave new world of a used EV? One last thought from Plug ‘n Drive’s Cara Clairman: “Make sure the 110V charging cable is in the trunk,” she cautions. They are expensive to replace.”
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