Buying a Used EV Doesn’t Need to Scare You

Battery capacity is more important than performance

Right now, you can fire up Craigslist or hit up your local dealership and find a used EV. Not just compliance vehicles like the VW eGolf of Fiat 500e (both of which are actually great little cars) but vehicles with ranges beyond 150 miles. So how do you shop for a used EV?

2017 Chevy Bolt EV Lineup

General Motors

While some things carry over from the gas-powered vehicle world, there are also some new things to consider. When I say new things, I mean the big thing. The biggest thing. The battery. 

Range Finder

Traditionally buying a used car meant firing up the engine and listening very carefully. Are the valves pinging? Is that detonation? Why is this thing not idling smoothly? Those issues are no longer, well, issues. Instead, you need to make sure the battery isn't a degraded pile of electrons. 

First, find out if the battery has been replaced. There's a good chance if it was, the current owner would tell you because a fresh new-ish battery is a selling point. This is where I remind you that the age and mileage of the vehicle will likely determine how much capacity it still has. Take all of that into consideration. Don't expect an EV with over 200,000 miles to have the same range as when it was new. In other words, if you need a lot of range and the car has a lot of miles, it might not even be worth your time to check it out. 

Now it's time to take a drive. 

Ask to take the car out for an hour and try to do a 50-mile run. If they are nervous about you being gone that long with their vehicle, a 25-mile run will work. But the more miles you do, the better idea you'll have about the battery's state. This is where you have to do some math, but to give you a new vehicle baseline, you can find the vehicle on the EPA's fuel economy site

Like a regular car, it's important to make sure you're getting what you paid for and not a money pit.

Before you go to see the car find out the vehicle's usable battery capacity. Not the gross, but the usable. You can find this either on the media page of a vehicle or in some more robust reviews of a vehicle. You're going to need this number. 

Take note of the battery percentage at the beginning and end of your drive. Use that number to calculate the amount of kWh you burned through during your drive. For example, maybe you used 25-percent or 25 kWh of a 100 kWh capacity battery pack while driving 50 miles. The approximate total range of the vehicle is about 200 miles. But it's not as simple as that. 

You need to make sure the route is a nice mixture of regular freeway and street driving. If you jump on the highway and drive 80 MPH for 50 miles, you're not going to get a range number that's even close to what the EPA determined the vehicle can accomplish. This is not the time to check on the performance aspects of the car. Figure out how you typically commute and try to recreate that. 

If the calculated range is just atrocious compared with the range the vehicle shipped with when new, the current owner might have only fast-charged the vehicle and/or always charged it to 100-percent. This is where you get to negotiate the price. It's also time to figure out the warranty. 

Maybe New Free Battery

If the vehicle's battery is still under warranty and the battery pack is degraded below 70 percent, you might get a new free battery after buying the car. That's a big win for you. But, check the fine print and call the manufacturer to make sure the warranty is transferable. They will likely want the vehicle identification number (VIN) when you call, so be sure to grab that from either the door jamb or the corner of the driver's side window. 

Two 2017 Chevy Bolts parked in front of a house.

General Motors

Realize that if you can get a new battery for a car you just bought, get ready to wait for it while it's being serviced. Hit up the service center and ask them how long it typically takes and throw a few more days on top of that. 

Get the Carfax

We've all seen the commercials with the animated fox. But really, get the Carfax for the vehicle. It'll tell you about any accidents it's been in and other important life moments for the car. 

But don't completely trust the Carfax.

If an accident was never reported, it wouldn't appear on the Carfax. This is where you get to play detective. Fortunately, bad autobody work is easy to find. Make sure you can inspect the vehicle in the daylight or under strong lights. Someone that won't let you look at the vehicle outside of a dark garage is likely hiding something. 

You want to look for paint that doesn't look quite right. Maybe it's wavy or has a weird texture. You also want to look for panels that look brighter or darker than other portions of the vehicle. 

And keep an eye out for larger panel gaps in one spot than on the rest of the vehicle. Maybe a headlight on one side of the car doesn't fit as well as on the other side. That's a sure sign of a fender bender. 

I'd like to think that people are upfront and truthful about what they are selling, but people are people, and some are happy to rip you off. 

A red Chevy Bolt parked in front of a garage with a surf board on the roof.

General Motors

This also goes for dealerships. A large established dealership might not be on the up and up. Don't let the big shiny showroom distract you from a proper inspection. 

Tires and Interior

Make sure the tires are all the same and from a major manufacturer. Also, check their tread. Mismatched tires and tread wear could be the first clues that other things are wrong. Also, the interior can be a good indicator of how the vehicle was cared for. 

The odometer might say 70,000 miles, but if the interior feels like it's been through hell, either the car was mistreated, or (and this is becoming less of an issue) the odometer has been tampered with. Always lift up floor mats and the cargo area cover. If a vehicle has had a leak or other issues, it usually can be found in the cargo area. Look for rust, mold, and just general weirdness back there. If you see it, walk away. A leaking car is a pain to fix and likely has created other issues. 

Bring a Friend 

We can't all be car enthusiasts. Some of us just need to get to work and want to do so with an EV. But if you're not spending your weekends reading car magazines and posting to random forums about Saabs, you probably have a friend or family member that does. Bring them along but remind them about exactly what you want. You want transportation, not a project. 

In my own life, I will happily take a car and fix it up because I like working on cars. If you're like me, cool. If you're not and you just want to get to work, do not let your friend or the person selling the vehicle talk you into a project. Projects are expensive and time consuming and frustrating, and expensive. Did I mention expensive? I have a project car, and it's definitely not the vehicle I use every day. 

New EVs are still very expensive and out of the reach of many people. The used market is starting to see an influx of older EVs, these might be how many people ditch internal combustion engines. Figure out what you need in terms of range and start looking around. But, like a regular car, it's important to make sure you're getting what you paid for and not a money pit.

Want to know more about EVs? We have a whole section dedicated to electric vehicles!

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