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Do Not Believe The Hype About Most Used Electric And Plug-In Hybrid Vehicles

It seems like the media and consumers are freaking out about how scary it is to contemplate buying a used plug-in vehicle, all because you have no way to tell how long the very expensive battery will last. I am here to tell you this is utter rubbish.

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First of all, media sources like Reuters are perpetuating myths about how difficult it is to know or trust that a plug-in vehicle's battery is going to be reliable. This is glaringly obvious when in the linked article the authors set up a weak comparative scenario: a 3-year-old used car scenario is mentioned first, with a 3 year old EV being valued at 10% less than a comparably aged fossil-fueled vehicle and over the span of a few sentences it is juxtaposed with how important it is to know “...the capacity of that (EV) battery)...” in order to “weed out” EVs with less than 80% of their battery capacity remaining and a 9 year old Tesla EV with 240,000 km (149,000+ miles) is the reference point.

The differences between a 3 and 9-year-old used vehicle, regardless of its powertrain, are quite significant especially if said vehicle has as many miles or kilometers on it as the referenced Tesla does. It is completely disingenuous, or plainly ignorant, to juxtapose the two scenarios.

A 3-year-old vehicle, in most cases, will be practically new unless it was driven far beyond what may be considered average (which in the US would be about 36,000 - 45,000 miles).

A 9-year-old vehicle by comparison, even when driven a less than average distance, would have around 100,000 miles on it (or more) which is generally beyond the maximum distance most gas-powered vehicles have factory powertrain warranties for (and for good reason, it is a distance when significant maintenance may be required).

By contrast, many EVs and PHEVs (like those from Tesla, Kia, Hyundai and Nissan) have battery and or powertrain warranties equal to or greater than 100,000 miles (note that gas-powered vehicles made by some of these companies have the same warranty too). In short, a 3-year-old EV or PHEV (and their powertrains) should have similar life expectancy as a 3-year-old internal combustion vehicle, if not more.

This is especially true of EVs since they don’t have a gas-powered engine and won’t need maintenance associated with such engines like valve and timing adjustments, emissions-related work and of course oil changes. As such, when talking about “lightly” used vehicles (3 years old for example) it is generally unrealistic to consider plug-in vehicles as being any more likely to require expensive maintenance than a gas-powered vehicle. Any such maintenance on a lightly used vehicle that could be required would most likely be covered under that vehicle's powertrain warranty.

A few edge cases notwithstanding (like my 2011 Nissan LEAF which had a passively cooled battery and a chemistry that was replaced only a few years into production), it is no more difficult to tell whether a used gasoline-powered car is likely to have a solid powertrain than it is a plug-in vehicle, especially if you are talking about an all-electric vehicle (EV). I say that last part only because plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) do have two distinct propulsion systems by nature, and as such have the potential for more things to go wrong. How can I say this? Easy!

When considering the purchase of a used gasoline-powered vehicle one may rely on any of the following to gauge whether or not the vehicle is likely to have a long usable life and reasonable maintenance costs: the age and number of miles on the vehicle, the brand (and its reputation), whether or not it has had any kind of dealer or manufacturer-approved inspection, the outward appearance and driving experience (if not buying sight unseen), and possibly whether there is any warranty left on the vehicle or its components.

For a used plug-in vehicle, especially one that is more than 3 years old or at/near the limit of its battery warranty, in addition to the total mileage on the vehicle, one should also attempt to ascertain any difference between its originally stated range and what it is capable of now.

For example, if it was rated for 315 miles of range when new, and now the display shows a much lower figure when fully charged that could be an indicator of a troubled battery, though only a thorough test drive using enough of the battery to confirm or extrapolate what the actual remaining range is or a “battery health check” that a dealership/service center should be able to do, can confirm. Every single one of these factors is equally applicable to an EV or PHEV otherwise, but yet there persists a lurking concern that used car buyers apparently can’t get beyond: how long will the battery last?

It is appropriate to ask such questions and to be concerned, especially when plug-in vehicles like the all-electric Chevy Bolt and PHEVs from Jeep and Chrysler have had high-profile recalls on their batteries (that may have gone up in flames otherwise). Just because most plug-in vehicles tend to have longer warranties and fewer maintenance requirements (for their powertrains), does not mean they are all reliable, so as always do your research before buying any used car. It is also worth pointing out that manufacturers (instead of third-party companies) could easily make the health or condition of their large battery packs a known commodity.

Just like your smartphone, it is possible for manufacturers to produce stats or estimates for the relative health of the vehicle batteries as all batteries are capable of reporting such details as voltage and cycles for their respective cells, which can provide at least an estimate of the total potential capacity for charge remaining (that or most dealers/service centers should be able to do a battery health check).

The fact that many brands may not offer this information in their vehicle user interfaces could be a discouraging factor, but I would point out that manufacturers do not typically offer similar data points for gas-powered vehicles either (so it is perhaps unrealistic for us to expect that of EVs and PHEVs). In summary, precautions are good and appropriate for any vehicle and always be skeptical of a vehicle that exhibits obvious signs of wear and tear, but let's be fair and objective: the batteries in plug-in vehicles are typically warrantied for 8-10+ years and, with a few notable exceptions, have been as reliable (if not more so) than fossil fuel powertrains.

So as long as the warranty is still active/has a lengthy coverage still in effect, one should feel as comfortable with that as one would for the powertrain warranty on a used fossil fuel-powered vehicle.

Are you concerned about buying a used plug-in vehicle? What concerns you and what experience or research do you base that concern on? Please leave your questions and comments below.

Image courtesy of Justin Hart.

Justin Hart has owned and driven electric vehicles for over 15 years, including a first generation Nissan LEAF, second generation Chevy Volt, Tesla Model 3, an electric bicycle and most recently a Kia Sorento PHEV. He is also an avid SUP rider, poet, photographer and wine lover. He enjoys taking long EV and PHEV road trips to beautiful and serene places with the people he loves. Follow Justin on Torque News Kia or X for regular electric and hybrid news coverage.

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Patrick deCavaignac (not verified)    December 30, 2023 - 11:15AM

I recently traded in my 3 year old 55,000 mile Model Y long range for a new one out of concern for the degradation in range. When I bought it new it was rated for a 320 mile range. When I traded it in, I could really not drive a whole lot more than 180 miles…. The 100% charge posted 280 miles on the screen, but the power actually used progressively drew that down to maybe 200 miles making my “usable” range approximately 180 miles. I charges at home to 80% only most of the time, taking long trips 3 to 4 times a year that required supercharging (also usually to 80%, sometimes 90%).

I do not believe the battery pack will fail whomever bought the car used, but I think the new owner will be disappointed with the range degradation,

Incidentally, the new car, driven in the same style, allows approximately 250 mile legs ( given 80% charging and some reserve upon reaching the next supercharger),

JustinHart (not verified)    January 1, 2024 - 2:00PM

In reply to by Patrick deCavaignac (not verified)

Patrick, I am curious to know more about how you typically drove the Model Y you traded in because, if your battery had degraded as much as you described, it should have potentially been replaced/repaired via warranty. Tesla’s battery warranty for the Model Y states: “ 8 years or 120,000 miles, whichever comes first, with minimum 70% retention of Battery capacity over the warranty period.” If yours only had a realistic range of 200 miles max on a charge that would have meant it had lost over 30% of its capacity (37.5% loss). Did you report it to Tesla and have them evaluate whether the battery had prematurely failed?

Otherwise, the 320 mile range when it was new was of course an estimate too, and represents how far the car could be expected to go on a full charge under very specific circumstances, circumstances that would objectively represent a rare, ideal driving pattern to be honest. The range estimate when it was new of 320 miles, in other words, was based on driving half or more of those miles at speeds one would drive on city streets or suburban neighborhoods, not the freeway. If your regular use of the vehicle was to drive above 55 miles per hour for long distances, that may explain why your usable range wasn’t meeting your expectations. It sounds like the car displayed an estimate of 280 miles on a full charge after 3 years of use, and if the car’s range estimates were accurate (not that they were), then you might think it had only lost 12.5% of its capacity (still high for a Tesla battery to loose in 3 years - mine Model 3 has only lost about 10% in nearly 6 years, for comparison). But as you described, you were not getting the distance the car estimated you could and that’s why I asked about how you drove it. I find that if I am going on a long highway trip, I won’t get the 287 miles my fully charged Model 3 says I will (though I may get reasonably close to it if I happen to be driving on rural highways that have a max of 55 MPH and I don’t need to use the HVAC). I know it is impossible now, but I wonder if yours could still have gotten 280 miles if, for example, someone were driving it at least 50% on city streets and the remainder at 55MPH or slower, in other words.