Used electric cars: buying whys and wherefores

Latest: Since I wrote and published this guide, the market for second-hand electric vehicles has picked up. For instance, Auto Trader currently has 49 of Renault’s Zoe supermini for sale, including a 63-reg example that’s covered only a few dozen miles at £9495 – which is a £4000 saving on its list price when new.

That’s huge value. Don’t forget, though, that the deal with this car is that you’ll never own its batteries. You’ll lease them from Renault at £45 per month. This rids you of worries about what happens should they fail – but it does add considerably to ownership costs while also raising tricky questions about the car’s future saleability.

The Leaf, meanwhile, seems to have found its lower price level as a used car: the cheapest of the 219 offered is currently at £9995 – pretty much what we would have paid back in the summer. There are, a third more to choose from than there were back then – a factor that, in time, will see prices resume their downwards path.

I’ve just looked. Autotrader.co.uk currently has 137 Nissan Leafs listed as for sale. And the cheapest just now is £9895. That’s far less than half the price of the equivalent car new (current retail price: £23,490, once the £5000 govt. electric car is deducted).

That money buys an 11-reg Leaf in Kuro Black, having covered a modest 16,000 miles, with a service history and offered by a Nissan franchised dealer. It’s also covered by Nissan’s ‘Cared 4’ scheme for used vehicles. If you were shopping for an electric car, it would be hard indeed to pass up the value that such a vehicle offers in favour of something new. For its previous owner(s), it has been hugely expensive. I’ve just tapped some figures into a calculator and discovered that they lost, on average, £1 per mile in depreciation.

£10k-leaf

Add in insurance, servicing and recharge charges, and ownership costs run at around £1.20 per mile. That’s not too bad for a typical £25,000 mid-sized car. But if the first owner bought believing electric car ownership would save them a bundle, our figures prove him or her mistaken. Depreciation – the difference between you bought a car for and what it’ll raise when you sell it – overwhelms any savings made on fuel. Still, the first owners’ losses benefit this car’s next owner, who can expect much lower whole-life vehicle costs while benefiting from the dependability promised by such a lightly-used car. Or can he or she?

Leaving aside such oddities as the G-Wiz electric micro-car, the Leaf is the UK’s first ‘sensible’ all-electric model. As such, the oldest examples are now just over three years old. Other full-electric cars have since joined it, such as Renault’s Zoe and Fluence, BMW’s i3 and VW’s e-Up. None of the others, however, has been around long enough to show up in numbers as used cars. Until they do, we won’t see a clear picture for whether buyers will take to the notion of buying them second-hand.

As it is, our second-hand Leaf looks to be a bargain. But to assess value, we need to look beyond price. The car comes with a year’s warranty, while Nissan covers its batteries for five years/60,000 miles from new, so there’s two years/46,000 miles remaining.

So the theory runs, electric cars should be very reliable – there are fewer parts and the engines have been tested to huge mileages. But the big worry has to be those batteries. Broadly speaking they use lithium-ion technology, similar in some ways to those powering your laptop or mobile phone. And we’ve all experienced how the batteries in these store less and less power with time and use. A replacement battery for your smartphone may cost just a few pounds: for a Leaf, the cost of replacing the lot has been previously estimated at £19,000.

That would make no sense. Because even the oldest UK Leafs are still within warranty, no owner has to tackle the problem.

They will, however, have seen battery storage capacity – and effective maximum mileage between charges – edge down once the car’s had some use. Nissan says the Leaf’s batteries at approaching five years/60,000 miles should be capable of showing 9 bars or charge (out of 12) on the car’s dash gauge. Nissan claims 124 miles is the most you should expect between charge ups: real-world experience suggests 80 miles is a safe maximum. Reduce that by a quarter (or 3 bars/12) and you have 60 miles. Our three-year-old example from Autotrader.co.uk should do rather better than that… for now.

But any would-be purchaser must also think of where he or she’ll stand after a couple of years, with the warranty expired and the battery growing ever-feebler. It’s possible that battery technology may by then have leapt ahead, so that a new high-capacity alternative will not only be available but will cost far less than a like-for-like replacement. But that will be a risky bet.

Used-car pricing experts have long said that owners shouldn’t expect electric cars to be worth much once they’ve reached over five years old.

One problem for now is, if you’re selling to a car dealer – even in part-exchange for another vehicle – he has to trust the trade price guides, which, in turn, are extremely cautious. Typically, they value electric cars at three-years-old as worth just 20% of their all-in price when new. For comparison, similar diesel cars retain on average 40% of their value.

For now, second-hand electric cars such as our sub-£10,000 Leaf look strong value. But, look deeper into ownership costs and outlook as we have here, and the risks inherent in buying become all too clear.

There are great used Nissan leaf deals about

There are great used Nissan leaf deals about

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