Used electric cars: should you buy one?

There's plenty to bear in mind if you're thinking of buying a used electric vehicle – these are our top tips…

Electric cars aren't new, but their long-awaited surge in popularity is here, with just over 141,000 EVs registered by October in 2021. That's an increase of 86 per cent on the previous year. Shifting market trends means sales of alternatively fuelled vehicles (AFVs) have surpassed all previous records, and more second-hand electric cars are now available on the used market as a result. 

It's easy to see why so many motorists are making the switch. Lower taxation, grants and cheaper running costs for EVs look appealing next to the rising cost of diesel and petrol car ownership, combined with the introduction of 'clean air zones'.

  • Best electric cars to buy 2021

Any used car purchase can be daunting, but there's a few more things to also consider if it's your first electric car, which is why we've prepared this guide to buying a used EV, helping you to pick the best EV for your requirements.How to buy an electric car

But, there's no guarantee that the charging point you go to will be working, and it might not cater for your car's charging requirements. EV charging points at supermarkets and other busy locations could be occupied by thoughtless non-EV owners, too – it's the equivalent of parking at a petrol pump when you're just popping into the mini mart for a loaf of bread.

If you're confident that you'll be able to charge an EV, the next thing you need to bear in mind is what kind of driving you normally do. If you do a lot of motorway miles, then an EV is a no-go, as a fully charged battery will lose its charge a lot faster at motorway speeds than the estimated range will lead you to believe. If short urban trips take up most of your driving, then an EV is ideal, as stop-start traffic will help limit battery depletion, and in some models frequent braking will even replenish the battery while you're on the move.

Charging options

Depending on which car you go for, you need to be aware of the different charging options open to you. All models will have a charging cable with a standard UK three-pin plug available, so you can simply plug the car into the mains. But this is the slowest way of charging an EV.

There are Government incentives available to get an EV charging station set up at your home, and this can reduce charging times by up to 60 per cent. You can currently get up to £350 off a home charge point installation, although you need proof of ownership of an EV before you can apply, so this will be something to consider once you've bought an electric car.

Current EVs use an industry standard seven-pin charging lead, but older EVs may only come with two or five-pin charging leads and sockets. If you're looking at a Tesla Model S, then you will have access to the firm's Supercharger network, which uses yet another type of charging lead that's incompatible with any other electric car charger.

What to look for

The biggest issue with electric cars, and particularly used electric cars, is how well the batteries keep their charge. In the rare event you purchase a car that has trouble maintaining battery energy, then you'll need to consider the cost of replacing the battery. This can be astronomical, although manufacturers now offer generous battery warranties which should cover any issues.

Other than that, you can look at a used EV in the same way as you would a conventional car. Make sure all of the electrics work – EVs are usually pretty well equipped, so check all the gadgets are functioning – while most electric cars will have been used in town, so keep an eye out for wheel damage that may extend to the suspension behind it.

In other respects, EVs should be easier to assess and have fewer potential issues than petrol or diesel models. There's no clutch that can wear out, no engine oil or spark plugs, and no worry about a cambelt that hasn't been changed on time. Where possible, ask the garage or owner to fully charge the EV before you visit, allowing you to see the battery charge percentage and indicated range in the trip computer. 

Battery warranty

Most EVs come with a separate warranty for their battery, and this usually runs for longer than the car's warranty. There was an industry standard eight-year warranty on many models, although some later cars have a shorter five-year term. Either way, this should give you added peace of mind that the battery will keep its charge. Some even stipulate the acceptable capacity after eight years (often around 70 per cent), and will replace or refurbish the battery if it falls below this level.

What are the best used electric cars?

So which used electric cars should you be thinking about if you are looking to buy? We’ve rounded up six of the best. 

BMW i3 

BMW started with a clean slate when it created the i3 – and it shows. Designed without compromise, the distinctive supermini has a body built from lightweight carbon fibre and offers great practicality.

If you’re not sure about going the whole hog with a purely electric car there’s also a range-extender (REx) edition available. This features a 650cc petrol engine that acts as an on-board generator to keep the batteries topped up, so there’s no danger of being left stranded on your adventures this year.

  • Long-term test review: BMW i3 Range Extender

Owners seem happy so far, but punctured tyres are common, especially on 20-inch wheels. There have also been a number of software updates to improve how the car charges and runs, so make sure they’ve all been done before buying. 

Vital statistics

UK sales started:November 2013
Used prices from:£14,000
Official range:80-195 miles (288 miles for REx)
Number sold so far:10,000+
Battery warranty:8yrs/100k miles
Replacement battery:N/A
Driver Power 2021  ranking:N/A

Kia Soul EV

Most Kia Souls have an internal combustion engine, so the EV version is something of a compromise, even if it works rather well in practice.

As a small family car, it’s reasonably practical for travel. The boot isn’t all that big so you might have to cut back on what you plan to carry, but cabin space is no worse than in a regular edition. The dash is modern and appealing but looks conventional, while like all the cars in this line-up the Kia comes as an automatic only.

When we ran a Soul EV on our fleet in 2015 the car proved reliable and we loved it. Relatively few electric models have been sold so far, but there don’t seem to be any fault patterns yet.

Vital statistics

UK sales started:November 2014
Used prices from:£11,000
Official range:132 miles
Number sold so far:N/A
Battery warranty:7yrs/100k miles
Replacement battery:N/A
Driver Power 2021:N/A

Nissan Leaf 

As the first commercially successful electric car, the Leaf is a trailblazer. With almost six years’ worth of sales now under its belt, the family hatchback is also by far the most plentiful EV on the used market – unlike the other models in our list, there are hundreds of second-hand Leafs to choose from.

When we ran one on our fleet, the Nissan’s keys were usually the first to be claimed every night, thanks to its compliant ride, nippy urban performance and ultra-low running costs (EVs are exempt from London’s Congestion Charge).

Some early cars are now suffering from a reduced range, but that doesn’t mean the entire battery pack has to be replaced – you can just swap out the faulty cells, which is a relatively inexpensive process. 

Vital statistics

UK sales started:March 2011
Used prices from:£9,000
Official range:124 miles
Number sold so far:31,000
Battery warranty:5yrs/60k miles
Replacement battery:N/A
Driver Power 2021:40th

Renault ZOE

Of all the electric cars available, the ZOE is perhaps the best all-rounder. It’s good to drive, spacious and practical, but it’s also more affordable than any of the alternatives.

With even entry-level models well equipped, there’s no reason to shop further up the range, and the Renault promises more than 100 miles on a single charge.

Vital statistics 

UK sales started:March 2013
Used prices from:£8,500
Official range:130 miles
Number sold so far:10,510
Battery warranty:5yrs/60k miles
Replacement battery:N/A
Driver Power 2021:N/A

Tesla Model S

Tesla came from nowhere and created a luxury car with everything – apart from a conventional engine. Drive one of these astonishing exec hatchbacks, and your perceptions of EVs will be changed forever.

You pay handsomely for the privilege, but in return the Model S brings a spacious interior that feels ultra-modern with its touchscreen tablet dash. There’s a huge boot in the nose and an even bigger one behind the cabin, plus the Tesla offers enough performance to worry fully fledged supercars – while carrying five adults in comfort. Some owners have experienced reliability issues, but the Model S came top in our Driver Power 2016 satisfaction survey.

Vital statistics 

UK sales started:May 2014
Used prices from:£30,000
Official range:248-381 miles
Number sold so far:N/A
Battery warranty:8yrs/unlimited miles
Replacement battery:N/A
Driver Power 2021:N/A

Volkswagen e-Golf

The Golf is a great family hatch – one of our favourites, in fact. However, when you create an EV from a car powered by petrol or diesel, it’s inevitably not as slick as one that was designed to run on electricity from the outset.

In this case, the e-Golf retains the original’s practicality, superb build quality and refinement levels, but the ride is disappointing, the price is too high and the handling isn’t as sweet as you’d expect from a Golf. If you can get the right deal, the VW is definitely worth a closer look, though – especially once prices have dropped further. 

Vital statistics 

UK sales started:June 2014
Used prices from:£16,000
Official range:118 miles
Number sold so far:N/A
Battery warranty:8yrs/100k miles
Replacement battery:N/A
Driver Power 2021:73rd (all Golfs)

Electric car case studies: how they can slash your bills

Case One: Mark Tebbutt

Drives: Nissan Leaf, personal contract purchase (PCP)

Mark Tebbutt from Chorley, Lancashire, has leased Nissan Leafs through his company since March 2011 and is currently running his third model. His first Leaf did 12,531 miles in 27 months, using £343.38 worth of electricity. The total cost of maintenance was £242.10 for two services, and the monthly PCP was £449.03 (with a £2,000 deposit).

While Mark’s first two Leafs had the 24kWh battery, his current car is a 30kWh model and costs £288.37 a month on a PCP; the deposit was £1,500. That lets him notch up 15,000 miles a year, although he’s on track to get closer to 25,000; each extra mile carries a 8p penalty. So far the car has needed one £99 service; no fresh tyres are yet required.

As Mark is a business user the Leaf makes a lot of sense; he can claim a commuting mileage allowance of 45p per mile for the first 10,000 miles, then 25p per mile after that. He currently drives 420 work miles each week, and as each of those costs around 1p (for the electricity only) compared with an estimated 11p/mile for a diesel, that’s a lot of cash saved. Free electricity has been available from a workplace parking charger since last August, so Mark has been quids in – our table shows how his costs compare with a diesel Nissan Qashqai – although he knows at some point he’ll have to start paying for this ‘fuel’.

He says: “I’d recommend leasing a new electric car via PCP, then handing it back at the end of the lease and upgrading to the latest model."

Still, at the right price, Mark feels an outright purchase can make sense. He tells us: “I’ve heard of owners being offered the chance to buy their ex-PCP cars at well below the balloon payment price, while pre-registered cars can be found at healthy discounts. My dad bought a six-month-old ex-demo with 5,000 miles on the clock for around £17,000 in March 2015. That was a saving of £9,000 on the new list price.

“He covers only around 2,500 miles each year, and partially charges his car from excess solar power between the spring and autumn. Indeed, in 2016 his electricity bill for the car was £57.29; that’s very cheap motoring indeed.”

Like-for-like costs

 Nissan Leaf TeknaNissan Qashqai dCi 110 Tekna
PCP cost (monthly)£288.37*£423
PCP cost (12 months)£3,460.44£5,076
Insurance group2015
Road tax£0£20 (103g/km)
Fuel (15,000 miles)£166.98£1,485.60**
Maintenance£99£200 (estimate)
Cost per mile24.8p45.2p

*Allowance of up to 15,000 miles per year. **Qashqai claims economy of 70mpg; 55mpg in real world.

Case Two: Sam East

Drives: Renault ZOE, outright purchase

Sam East reckons there are two types of EV driver: those who buy for ethical reasons, and those who want the cheapest-possible motoring. Sam, from Stratford-upon-Avon, Warks, is largely in the second camp, although naturally he’s also a fan of cleaner air. Having run a 54-plate Renault Mégane, Sam bought his ZOE outright in 2015, but leased the batteries (although Renault no longer offers leasing options for its batteries).

He says: “The ZOE was the cheapest EV on the market; mine had done only 200 miles and cost £9,000. It’s now on 40,000 miles; it’s been to the Netherlands and Scotland, and has notched up as many as 600 miles in a day, so it’s very usable.”

Sam charges his car overnight using home-energy plan Economy 7’s cheaper night rates. In the first year this cost 4p/kWh, so 16,000 miles of motoring cost £160; the other 4,000 miles were fuelled via free charging points. But in year two the Economy 7 price rose to 5p/kWh, hiking Sam’s bills to £200 for 16,000 miles; again, 20 per cent of mileage was courtesy of free charging points. The only other costs have been two services (£140) and two front tyres at 25,000 miles (£210). And you can see how these figures stack up against those for a Renault Clio diesel in our table.

Says Sam: “I charge the car at home where possible; I can take it from empty to full for 88p, where even a partial charge at motorway services is a flat £6. Still, there are some free charging points; if you use these you can cut costs further.”

He continues: “The issue is that the UK’s charging network isn’t joined up, so to go where you like needs subscriptions to numerous providers. Despite this, I’m still saving £250 per month with the ZOE, compared with a conventional car. Part of that is from lower fuel costs and part from lower parking costs; my nearest railway station’s £4 daily charge is waived for electric vehicles.”

Like-for-like costs

 Renault ZOE Dynamique IntensRenault Clio 1.5 dCi Dynamique Media Nav
List price£15,195 (after £5,000 grant)£15,595
Pre-reg price£9,000.00£12,500 (estimate)
Insurance group£1612
Road tax£0£0 (82g/km)
Fuel (40,000 miles)£360£3,352*
Battery lease£70/month£0
Battery lease total£1,680£0
Maintenance£350 (incl. tyres)£540 (est. including tyres)
Trade-in value£4,500 (£6,175 forecourt)£6,750 (£8,275 forecourt)
Cost per mile6.0p (17.2p)**9.7p (24p)

*Clio claims economy of 85.6mpg; 65mpg in real world. Diesel at £1.20 per litre. **Cost per mile including depreciation. Insurance costs are assumed to be roughly equal plus Sam has saved hundreds in parking costs by running an EV.

How much is your car worth? Find out with our free car valuation tool and check out the latest electric car prices on our sister site BuyaCar…

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