Electric cars have become increasingly popular among savvy drivers looking to plug into cheaper running costs. With the most successful model ‑ Nissan’s Leaf ‑ now five years old, ever more used electric cars that are no longer covered by a manufacturer’s warranty will be for sale. This guide should ensure you end up with a car that puts some spark into your life rather than leaving you feeling flat.
What is there to look out for?
There might not be much to do beneath the bonnet of an electric car, apart from topping up the windscreen washer bottle, but there are still
things to watch out for. How many miles the battery will give you is vital and this will be affected by how the car has been used. Buying an electric car can be more complex than a conventional model because some makers lease the battery to you, a bit like a service charge on a flat. And then there are all the usual things to be mindful of when buying a used car.
Is there less to go wrong on an electric car?
In theory, a battery powered car should be more reliable than an internal combustion engine (ICE) model. This is because an electric motor has far fewer moving parts than a petrol or diesel engine. A conventional petrol or diesel engine has more than 200 active components, each of which is critical to making it work. An electric motor has just one in its propulsion unit: the motor rotor which connects to the output shaft to turn the wheels.
The key to happy electric motoring is having sufficient battery life to achieve the miles you need between charges. Thankfully, the cells in electric cars don’t deteriorate at the same rate as those in mobile phones or lap top computers. But they do still degrade over time. Nissan believes a Leaf’s batteries will have 80 per cent of their original capacity after five years. As the car has only been on sale in the UK since 2011, it’s currently impossible to say how much further they’ll deteriorate.
How has it been used?
If you can, find out how regularly the car has been used. Not using an electric car is worse for the batteries than driving it every day. If a battery is charged and discharged regularly, it should cover at least 150,000 miles. If it’s been left parked for weeks on end, you could be in for a nasty surprise. To replace a battery is big money: for a Nissan Leaf, it’ll set you back £4920. Even with the £1000 you get for the old battery, that’s still a hefty hit.
Warranty wisdom: what are you buying?
With some electric cars, typically Renaults, you don’t own the batteries with the rest of the car; they’re leased. That means you will be taking on a contract with the manufacturer to lease the batteries and paying between £55 and £75 a month. And there will be mileage limits with penalties for exceeding them so make sure this works for your intended usage. The good news is, if there’s a fault with the battery or its range isn’t what it should be (usually less than three quarters of claimed mileage when new) a warranty will replace the battery free of charge. If the battery isn’t leased, check its warranty. These vary between manufacturers and vehicles. They can be as generous as eight years or 100,000 miles, whichever comes first. Others might be just half that.
What else can go wrong?
The electric car you’re looking at may not have the oily bits of a petrol or diesel model but it’s still a used car. The things that go wrong with conventional cars also fail on electric cars. Check that all the switches and the information screen inside the car work. There have been complaints about problems with these on older Teslas and they’re expensive to fix.
It’s still mechanical
An electric car still has power-assisted steering and brakes. It has conventional suspension and tyres too. All these are subjected to wear and tear during the hurly burly of everyday driving. And it’s worth bearing in mind that batteries in an electric car are heavy. A Nissan Leaf weighs 200kg more than the Japanese firm’s Pulsar which has near identical dimensions. That means there’s more weight to bring to a halt, balance through corners and inflict wear on tyres. As with any used car, a test drive is vital.
Remember it’s a used car
You need to check that the paperwork is in order, that the car is what it claims to be, and that the person selling it is entitled to do so. You can also check its history and mileage using the government’s MOT checker website. Most electric cars live in towns and cities and do short journeys so don’t be surprised if the mileage appears low for the car’s age. But it’s still worthwhile having the car’s history checked to make sure it hasn’t had miles wound off it.
Models to watch out for
Although electric car sales are increasing, they’re still not popular enough to feature in many UK reliability rankings. However, in the Auto Express Driver Power 2016 survey of car owners, the Tesla Model S was voted the best car of all to own followed by the Renault Zoe. But while the Tesla was fifth for reliability, the Zoe was a disappointing 106th. In 2015, the Nissan Leaf was ranked eighth overall for reliability. However in 2016 – as the cars reviewed get older – it came 27th for reliability.
In the US, the respected Consumer Reports organisation claims the 2013 Nissan Leaf has below average reliability. It’s also critical of older Teslas. There have been complaints about the climate control, steering and suspension in 2015 cars. And in early models from 2013, owners moan about unreliable drive systems. According to Consumer Reports, the BMW i3 is another to have ‘below average reliability’.