Most used-car shoppers are counseled to prioritize a low odometer reading when they’re looking to buy. Internal-combustion vehicles are particularly sensitive to high mileage, since things like belts, hoses, emissions sensors, gaskets, exhaust systems, engines and transmissions typically start to fade and fail as the miles pile up.
But what about in an electric car, which lacks many of the moving parts that wear down with use? There are a set of shared parts, such as tires, brakes, and suspension, that will get old regardless of how a car is powered. But with an electric motor, the overall value of the vehicle is decoupled from the odometer and you don’t need to be scared off by a high mileage used EV.
Just as a pampered, high-mileage ICE vehicle may be a better bet than an abused low-mileage one, a well-cared-for EV with a big number on the odometer is worth a closer look.
Every new EV in the U.S. includes a federally mandated battery warranty of eight years or 100,000 miles. In reality, the battery is likely to blow right past that milestone, as reams of real-world data attest (including that from a Dutch-Belgian site in the Tesla Motors Forum). One study shows Tesla batteries still retaining 81-87% of their original range at 200,000 miles - an odometer reading that would seriously ding the valuation for an ICE car. Recurrent’s own data suggests similarly low degradation for high mileage vehicles in its own fleet.
The chart below shows how maximum range at 100% charge changes with mileage for the Tesla Model S in the Recurrent community. Even the high mileage cars show little range degradation from new.
EV batteries tend to register a step-off in capacity during their first year or two as the battery is settling into a stable state, then degradation plateaus. My 2018 Tesla Model 3 Mid Range, for example, began its life with an EPA-estimated 264 miles of range – of which the most I ever saw was 261 miles. After one year, the maximum range had dropped 4.6% to 249 miles.
It took nearly three years to lose the next 4.6%, with each year’s loss being progressively smaller. Now, after more than four years, and with 50,000 miles on the odometer, max range stands at 236 miles, or 90.4% of the battery’s (observed) max capacity when new. Attention used-EV shoppers: that’s a lot of usable battery from a car that’s already covered a significant chunk of miles – it’s still good for nonstop blasts from Portland to Seattle, Chicago to Indianapolis, Orlando to Jacksonville or Dallas-Fort Worth to Austin.
So, yes, when shopping for an EV, you can’t totally ignore the digits on the odometer, but don’t get hung up about them, either.
With that in mind, here’s a short checklist for those in the market for a pre-owned EV:
- Determine the health of the car’s battery pack. Start by asking the dealer or private seller how much of the original capacity the battery has retained. Verify the claim by checking the car’s battery-status display. Every make has a different way of showing this. In my Tesla, for example, the maximum capacity is displayed under the range icon when the car is plugged in and the slide bar that lets you set the battery charge limit is moved all the way to the right (photo).
- In a second-generation Nissan Leaf (2018 and up), you can find “battery capacity” information by using the steering wheel controls to flip through the car’s assortment of screens. And so on. Whatever EV you’re considering, the internet is your friend for finding how to check battery status. And tools like My Battery Health or our own Recurrent Reports can provide an independent assessment of an EV’s battery condition.
- Shop within your budget. You may covet an Audi e-tron, but a Chevy Bolt EV will go about the same distance on a single charge and will cost you a lot less. Both cars have the same above-average owner-satisfaction scores, too. To save even more, consider an off-lease car, or one that’s three to five years old.
- Check for safety features. Automatic emergency braking and blind-spot warning are among the most highly recommended of the newer safety technologies. Research what is available and make a list of what matters to you.
- Do a walk-around to check for damage, suspicious leaks, etc. Take the time to push every button, turn every knob and flip every switch to be sure everything works. Take a test-drive and follow up on any weird sounds or suspension issues you may notice.
- Check the EV’s history with services like Bumper or AutoCheck, which can disclose ownership and service history, and whether the car has been involved in an accident.
- Ask your dealer about getting a Recurrent report to check out more specifics about how this car’s range might change in cold weather, and how it may age
A high number of charging cycles, long-term exposure to high temperatures, frequent DC fast-charging and deep charge-discharge patterns (e.g., regularly cycling the battery’s state of charge from 0% to 100% to 0%) all can conspire to hasten a battery pack’s demise. The good news about electric vehicles is that real-world use clearly shows EV batteries, in general, are durable and last a long time, even when the miles accumulate.
Judicious used-EV buyers are likely to get a vehicle that will deliver years of useful service. The trick is knowing just how much battery life is left before you drive the car off the lot. And that doesn’t have to be a mystery.
Written by John Kent, an independent journalist specializing in transportation and environmental issues. He served as a staff writer for the Albuquerque Journal and has contributed stories to the Associated Press, Dallas Morning News and Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He is a contributing editor for Texas Climate News and a frequent contributor to GreenSource DFW.