Used Electric Cars: Quick Guide For Getting The Best Deal

June 13, 2015

If you think that electric-car ownership is beyond your financial reach, think again.

Due to a matter of supply and demand, and a flood of used models entering the market, electric vehicles (EVs) like the Nissan Leaf are remarkably affordable.

This summer, and likely into the fall, there’s a surplus of electric cars being returned from two- and three-year manufacturer-subsidized leases; and it means that there are some serious deals to be had in buying a used electric vehicle (EV).

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The two models you’ll want to focus in on—the ones that haven’t held their value particularly well on the used market—are the Nissan Leaf and the Mitsubishi i-MiEV.

Both of these models are selling for less than $10,000 as three-year-old vehicles, in good condition. And analysts are anticipating that the continued stock of lease vehicles entering the used market will mean that prices will have even more downward price pressure.

Alternate all-electric models to consider include the Smart Fortwo Electric Drive (ED), and the Ford Focus Electric. These models aren’t showing up at used lots in the same numbers as the Leaf, but they’re also relative bargains as used cars.

Used EV average purchase prices, Jan-May 2015, for 1- to 3-year-old vehicles

Used EV average purchase prices, Jan-May 2015, for 1- to 3-year-old vehicles

All four of these models are retaining less than 40 percent of their value after two years, and the Focus Electric, Leaf, and i-MiEV are all holding at less than a third of their original value after three years. For the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, its three-year used value is only about a fifth of its original MSRP.

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No, the Tesla Model S isn’t part of that; its reputation, for being not just a good electric car but for also being one of the best-rated models on the market, of any kind, from a number of sources—including Consumer Reports—has kept its values buoyed, and its depreciation below that of luxury cars in its same as-new price range.

Part of the issue with the more affordable used EVs is that a federal $7,500 tax credit applies to these vehicles (now and when they were new), and so their effective value started out well below MSRP. Factor in relatively stable gasoline prices, and manufacture-subsidized leases that are built on inflated end-of-lease values, and there’s more downward price pressure in order for used EVs to make sense.

Those are abysmal figures for the industry, but they’re great for shoppers looking to get in on tailpipe-emissions-free motoring.

2013 Nissan Leaf at Nissan U.S. Headquarters, Franklin, Tennessee

2013 Nissan Leaf at Nissan U.S. Headquarters, Franklin, Tennessee

Here are a few key elements to take into consideration if you’re heading out to buy a used EV:

  • Miles don’t matter...much. You don’t have as many gaskets and belts, and all the wearable items associated with an engine, clutch, transmission, or fuel system. A dramatic loss in battery capacity with mileage hasn’t shown yet to be the issue that some feared; the greater issue is how the car’s been charged (always keeping a car charged up to 100 percent is not the way to battery longevity), and to some degree, whether the car's been in extremes, like Arizona (in the case of some earlier Leafs).
  • Have the car inspected. Bring it to the dealership—or if you’re in an electric-car hub city and have EV specialists, all the better. Have them inspect the car for any collision damage, and cover all the usual bases. And get a battery capacity check; this is a way to gauge the relative health of the battery.
  • Do you really need fast-charging? Models without fast-charging may be seen as orphans a few years from now—models that are lacking a key piece of technology that makes them more useful for the rare occasion where you need more range in your driving day. Yet if you have a predictable commute and are using the EV as a second or third car, chances are you’re never going to miss the fast-charging hardware; and models without it are selling for less. One thing you do want to make sure you have in a used EV purchase is the higher-capacity onboard charger—6.6-kW versus 3.3-kW in the Nissan Leaf, for example.
  • Buy a model that’s fully supported where you are. Some electric vehicles, like the Fiat 500e and Mercedes-Benz B-Class Electric Drive, are ‘compliance cars,’ only sold (or only promoted) in ZEV-mandate states where automakers can ‘earn’ credits to sell gas guzzlers without incurring fines. Since these cars are relatively low-volume models and prone to teething pains and minor issues, we encourage you to only get one if you’re in a state where they’re fully supported by your local dealership.

One final takeaway, as you head out looking for a used EV, is that the deals aren’t as location-dependent as you might think. While California bought nearly half (47 percent) of the nation’s electric vehicles in 2014, prices aren’t trending much different there than they are in other states, according to Kelley Blue Book data. So far, for some of the top-selling EVs, the supply-and-demand picture seems to be looking about the same, whether you’re in California or Maine.

And the used-EV deals, for the foreseeable future, will keep getting a little sweeter.

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