Used e-cars: What to look out for when buying one

Aug 26, 2021

As the sales figures for new e-cars grow, so does the market in second-hand electric cars. You can find out here which models are recommended and what counts when buying a used e-car.

Whether compacts, SUVs or hybrids – the range of new electric car models continues to expand, as does the overall number of electric vehicles on German roads. At the start of 2021 there were over 700,000, putting Germany at the forefront in Europe (total registrations EU 3.2 million, USA 1.7 million, China 4.2 million). This fact is also increasingly being felt in the used-car market too, where the range of e-cars on offer is broadening, around ten years after the market launch of the first cars with a lithium-ion battery. The latest technology at modest prices – it sounds like a good deal. But when buying a second-hand electric car, as with all other second-hand purchases, there are a few things to bear in mind. Here’s an overview of the key tips, questions, advantages and risks:

Which model is best for me?

In addition to standard questions about performance or available space, it is also important when buying an electric car to think about range – and, linked to that, the issue of charging: What is the longest distance you are likely to want to cover regularly?  Is there enough space for a wall-box at home, or is it possible to charge the car while at work? Depending on the answers to these questions, you would need to pay attention to certain minimum thresholds for range, charging performance and rapid charging capability. Once these minimum requirements have been established, you can start to scour the used-car market.

On the road since 2011: the Nissan Leaf is one of the long-running models of e-mobility. © Nissan

The advantages of used e-cars

Electric cars are becoming increasingly popular, leading to strong demand for new cars and thus to longer waiting times. Bottlenecks in supply due to coronavirus are only adding to that problem. It’s different in the used-car market, where with a bit of luck you can find and collect the car you love straight away. And at ever-lower prices: The environmental bonuses for new e-cars, recently extended again in Germany through to 2025, have also led to a real fall in prices in the used-car market, due to the competitive situation. Online comparison sites can help to give an overview of the current market prices. In addition, ADAC also offers a constantly-updated price calculator on the internet, where you can simply enter the data for the model you are after.  The computer shows you a standard market price.

Viewing the vehicle is essential!

Once the right e-car has been found, a physical inspection is imperative. It’s important to know that a trustworthy seller will openly discuss possible damage to the vehicle, does not pressurize the potential purchaser, and appears in person at the agreed time and place. As the purchaser, you are recommended to take along a friend who is knowledgeable about cars, because four eyes always see better than two.

The Volkswagen e-Up: A popular small electric car that can be found on the used market without a long wait. © Volkswagen

Checking the car: Pay attention to the brakes

When checking the vehicle, in essence the same rules apply as when inspecting a combustion-powered vehicle: Scan the bodywork for scratches and dents, check for anything unusual under the vehicle, look under the hood, check tire pressure and profiles, examine the brakes, and inspect the interior closely. Fundamentally, there is a lot less to inspect in the engine space and under the vehicle than with combustion-powered cars, since e-cars have far fewer components here. But when it comes to the brakes, it’s worth looking a little closer, since they are more likely be subject to corrosion on e-cars, due to the capability for energy recuperation and the lower use made of them as a result. This applies particularly for the rear brakes, which is why some models also employ drum brakes rather than disc brakes here. In addition, this is also the ideal opportunity to ask the seller about accident damage and to take a look at the service log, the registration document and the chassis number.

Test drive with range test

If the car’s condition reveals no defects that are not expected for its age, you can move on to the next step – the test drive. In addition to the usual check on noticeable noises while driving, this is a good opportunity to get your first impression of the battery’s condition. In that regard, it should be clear that the WLTP range officially quoted by the manufacturer generally does not reflect real-world use. The reason for that is differences in electricity consumption, which is heavily dependent on driving style, the weather conditions, the external temperature and the use of heating, air-conditioning and infotainment.

The ADAC Ecotest provides a good impression of real electricity consumption and ranges for new electric cars. With second-hand batteries, the rule is that the range decreases as the lifetime increases – so smaller reductions in range are normal here.   That said, the number and intensity of the charging operations are largely decisive for battery wear, and the first of these can usually be displayed via the infotainment screen. Similar to wear on a combustion-engined car, with an e-car charging operations can lead to noticeable losses in performance if the car has over 200,000 kilometers on the clock. Some manufacturers give their customers a guarantee, however. At Volkswagen, for instance, this is for 70 percent usable minimum capacity after eight years of use or up to 160,000 km driven. If you want to be sure that a battery has not been used excessively, you should check over the inspection reports.

Battery maintenance is the gold standard

The battery is the heart of the electric car. You should therefore be careful in how you handle it, and document its state of health (“SOH”) as accurately as possible. Sellers who have regularly taken the car to a manufacturer workshop for servicing and checks can do this via an inspection report and a service record. If these are missing, then during the test drive it is all the more important to pay attention to the battery’s performance. Incidentally, heat pumps are a big advantage in enabling batteries to perform to their best even at colder temperatures. On new e-cars, more and more manufacturers are fitting them as standard, but older models can often be retrofitted with them. It’s a definite plus point when buying a used car.

Used e-cars also qualify for the grant

The purchase of used e-cars and plug-in hybrids can qualify for a grant from the (German) state in the same way as new e-cars. The maximum grant in Germany for used e-cars is EUR 6,000. However, there are some conditions attached: For instance, that no application has already been submitted for a grant on the car, that it has not driven more than 15,000 km and that first registration was not more than 12 months earlier.

Also available on the used market, although in somewhat smaller numbers: The Volkswagen ID.3. © Volkswagen

Popular used e-cars

Used does not always mean used – something that is particularly clear with nearly-new cars (known as “Jahreswagen” in German). These are cars first registered under a year ago, and which frequently come from the car-pools of the car manufacturers or of large companies. They are not far off the quality of a new car, and they offer buyers the latest technologies and current models. In addition, however, there are also plenty of models that have already been on the market for far longer and where big price discounts are possible as used cars. These include the Renault Zoe, the Nissan Leaf, the Volkswagen eUp and the Smart EQ Fortwo. The BMW i3, the Tesla Model 3 and the eGolf from Volkswagen are slightly more expensive, although some of these models also come with a higher level of equipment. Further information on price trends on the used market can be obtained from Deutsche Automobil Treuhand (DAT).

(Teaserphoto: © Volkswagen; Stagephoto: © BMW)

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