Buying a used electric car can help you avoid paying congestion and emissions charges – here's how

An EV evades costly environmental penalties. But what about the battery, and how much will it cost to run? Here’s all you need to know

G-Wiz electric car enters the congestion charge zone on September 13, 2005 in London
Not so long ago, buyers of used EVs to beat the London congestion charge were limited to dismal fare such as the G-Wiz quadricycle. The choice is now much greater - and the cars so much better Credit: Scott Barbour/Getty Images

As the UK gets back to work, many people will be following Government advice to avoid public transport. However, particularly in London and some other cities, drivers who might ordinarily have taken the train and want to use their cars instead face huge weekly bills for congestion charges – or even fines.

If you’re one of them, buying a used electric car might be a smart way around those extra costs. Electric vehicles (EVs) are exempt from the London congestion charge, and it’s likely that they will be exempt from similar schemes that look set to crop up around the country in the next few years. Buying one now, therefore, might prove a worthwhile investment.

Of course, new EVs are good but expensive. Happily, however, there’s now a sizeable – and rapidly growing – crop of used electric cars to choose from. But is a used electric car a good idea – and what do you have to consider when buying one? Here’s our ultimate guide.

Will I have to replace the battery?

This is probably the question we get asked the most when it comes to used electric cars. In all honesty, at the moment, we don’t have a definitive answer – the pool of older electric cars simply isn’t large enough for that. 

Having said that, the signs are very promising. The earliest mass-market electric cars, such as the Renault Zoe, Nissan Leaf and Tesla Model S, are now about 10 years old, and we aren’t yet hearing many tales of woe from owners who’ve needed to replace their batteries.

The earliest 'proper' electric cars such as the Nissan Leaf are now affordable at up to 10 years old

American buyers’ guide Consumer Reports, meanwhile, estimates that most EV batteries should be able to last for 200,000 miles or more, maintained properly, which means they’re no less likely to fail than a petrol or diesel engine. 

How much does a replacement battery cost?

Replacing the battery in an electric car is a little like replacing the engine in a petrol car. It’s rare that you should have to do it, but if you do, it’s expensive.

Refurbished batteries for a Leaf will cost about £2,000

As an example, a brand-new battery pack fitted to a Nissan Leaf will set you back £4,920, although you can get a refurbished item fitted instead for £2,000. Battery packs for longer-range electric cars such as Teslas cost even more.

Will the range reduce over time?

Yes, just as the battery of a mobile phone or laptop computer gradually degrades, although not by quite as much you might think.

A survey carried out by US telematics firm Geotab of 6,300 electric cars found that, on average, they lost 2.3 per cent of their range each year. So even a 10-year-old electric car should still have the vast majority of its electric range left over. 

What else should I look for in a used electric car?

There’s actually relatively little to worry about. There are so few moving parts in the powertrain of an EV that its reliability is usually hard to fault. Of course, the reliability of the rest of the car depends on the quality of its manufacture – but that applies whether you buy an electric car or one that’s powered by petrol or diesel. 

Naturally, you’ll want to ask the vendor to charge the car fully, so that you can see what its maximum range is. However, don’t forget to take into account the temperature – batteries perform worse in cold weather – not to mention the fact that the car’s own range read-out may not be entirely accurate.

Charging plugs vary, especially on earlier cars, so make sure you do your homework Credit: FABRIZIO BENSCH

You’ll also want to make sure you’re buying a car with a connector you’re happy with. While most manufacturers are now standardising around the Type 2 plug socket, early electric cars had one of three main types – Type 2, Chademo and CCS.

Availability of these three types of plug varies at public charging points, so you’ll want to check you’ll be able to charge your car where you want to.

How much does a used electric car cost?

Prices for the Renault Zoe and Nissan Leaf start at £5,500 or so; however, you should keep in mind that some examples for sale at this price point will be subject to a monthly battery lease fee. Look out for ‘battery lease’ in the advert; an ‘owned battery’ is preferable – and if you’re not sure, make it one of the first questions you ask the seller.

Early Teslas such as the Model S were expensive - and will still cost about £30,000 for a 10-year-old example

If you want something with a little more range (not to mention a little more luxury), you could try a BMW i3, prices for which start at £12,000. There’s also the Volkswagen e-Golf, for which you’ll pay at least £14,000. And if you’d like to dip a toe into Tesla ownership, prices for an early Model S start at just over £30,000.

None of these pricier models was sold with a battery lease arrangement, so you can be sure you’ll own the battery in all of them.

How much money can I save by running an electric car instead of petrol?

Quite a bit. Travelling 50 miles in an early Nissan Leaf will cost you around £2 if you charge it at home. That compares to roughly £5 in a modern petrol or diesel car at current average fuel prices. What’s more, because they’re so mechanically simple, electric cars are much cheaper to maintain – and, of course, they cost nothing to tax. 

Let’s say you buy a Nissan Leaf for £6,000, and do 4,000 miles in it in a year. If you charge it at home each night, it’ll set you back around 4p per mile. It’ll cost you £159 to service at a Nissan dealer, and nothing to tax. Your total running costs over the course of that year, excluding insurance, will therefore be £319.

However or wherever you charge, an EV will save you money Credit: Justin Leighton

By contrast, a diesel Nissan Qashqai bought for the same amount will achieve around 48mpg in the real world, giving it a cost of 11p per mile. Servicing at the same Nissan dealer will cost £249, and tax will cost £30. Over the course of the same year, therefore, the Qashqai will set you back £719 – more than twice as much. 

All this without the additional savings you’ll make if you’re planning to drive into a city centre in order to avoid public transport during the coronavirus outbreak. Even if you only drive in twice a week, working from home the rest of the time, doing so in an electric car instead of a petrol or diesel one will save you about £1,400 per year. 

How do I charge an electric car?

Many of our readers are quick to point out that they don’t have access to a driveway or private parking space, so charging at home is a logistical nightmare – if not downright impossible. If that’s the case, it’s certainly true that owning an electric car is much more of a hassle, especially if your budget limits you to one of the early, low-range models. 

On-street charging is gradually improving, but it's best to have a home charger if you can

Nevertheless, on-street chargers are becoming more widespread, and these will make charging more accessible for drivers who don’t have a place to charge an electric car at home. You’ll also find more and more rapid chargers at petrol stations, which will allow you to top up in as little as half an hour – so if you have one nearby, you can leave the car to charge and pop back to pick it up later.

However, if you do have a driveway, charging your electric car at home couldn’t be easier. Plugging in is as easy as plugging in your phone to charge it; if you fit a wall charger, meanwhile, you’ll have a dedicated socket to use outside on the drive, and won’t need to mess about leading cables through windows or doors, or into the garage. 

Do I need to fit a wall charger at home?

You don’t – it is possible to charge your electric car using a domestic three-pin socket – but it is strongly advised. For one thing, a standard electricity supply won’t charge your car anywhere near as quickly. A full charge for an early Nissan Leaf on a standard supply will take more than 10 hours, for example, but if you get a charging point installed, that’ll drop to just 4.5 hours, making it easy to charge your car overnight.

A wallbox installed at your home is not only cheap, it's convenient. Here, a BMW i3 gets a top-up

However, you’ll also need to weigh up the cost of having one of these charging points installed. That currently stands at around £800 – maybe more, if your home needs electrical upgrades to suit. Given the potential savings you’ll be able to make, though, you might consider this a worthwhile investment – especially if you want to buy another electric or plug-in hybrid car in future. 

What range can I expect?

Don’t expect great distances out of the cheapest electric cars – they’ll only manage about 70 miles before running out of juice. However, that should be more than enough for most people’s commute to work and back, assuming the car gets a full charge each night. 

As a rule, small car equals smaller range. This is an early Renault Zoe

If you’re willing to spend a little more, the earliest Teslas are capable of around 200 miles on a full charge, which might be a much more reasonable option. However, do consider that for the price early Teslas cost, it’s possible to buy a much newer, albeit smaller, electric car that can achieve an even better range. 

Will an electric car be as fast as a petrol or diesel one?

That depends on which you buy, but in general terms, electric cars feel much faster away from standstill as they’re able to deliver instant acceleration without the need for a gearbox or a clutch.

However, that initial thrust tails off as the speed increases, so while most electric cars feel surprisingly nippy low down, some will feel more gutless at motorway speeds. 

Some modern EVs, such as the Porsche Taycan, can rival conventional cars for all-round performance

Naturally, the more money you spend, the faster your electric car will be, with Teslas sitting at the top of the tree in these terms – performance models can embarrass supercars with their pace from a standstill, and still feel pretty muscular even at motorway speeds. 

Will I have to turn off the heater and radio all the time?

We’ll finish with one more of our most commonly asked questions. If you buy an early electric car with a short range and you try to take on a commute that’s toward the upper limit of that range, then yes, you’ll probably find yourself having to reduce energy consumption in order to make it home, especially in winter. 

However, most electric cars’ range readouts are pretty accurate, so you will soon get an idea of what your EV can and can’t do. And if you use an electric car within its means, you shouldn’t have to use it any differently to a normal petrol or diesel car – which should mean you can stay warm, safe, and enjoy listening to Drivetime on your way home.

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