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Used electric cars: should you buy one?

With more used electric cars available than ever before and bargains to had, here are our top tips to consider before splashing the cash

Nissan Leaf - front tracking

The electric car revolution in the UK has accelerated hugely in the past few years and today, even as hype and buying incentives begin to fade slightly, enthusiasm for electric cars is strong. According to Zapmap, the total number of electric cars on UK roads tipped over the 1,110,000 mark this year; throw in just under 660,000 plug-in hybrids registered and it’s clear buyers have an appetite for low-emissions vehicles and that means new and used electric cars.  

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The electric car market has boomed in part thanks to ever-improving technology, battery range and infrastructure, along with generous government grants and serious tax incentives for both private buyers and company car users. Some incentive schemes – such as the Plug-in Car Grant (PICG) – have now been stopped as uptake has increased, but climate-related legislation is forcing brands to sell a certain percentage of EVs per year, which in turn means great deals on te table for new car buyers – and by extension, more electric car examples on the second-hand market at lower prices.

Used electric car market growth

The rapid pace of EV development and a constant flow of shiny new models – paired with (sometimes overblown) questions over battery life and more general economic issues – means electric cars have suffered steep depreciation in recent years. It’s a concern for those buying brand new electric cars with their own money but great news for those looking for a used electric car bargain.

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In fact, electric cars represent the fastest-growing sector of the used car market. In the first quarter of 2024, 41,505 used electric cars entered the market – a two-thirds increase on the same period in 2023. It’s largely the result of ex-company cars hitting the market in big numbers as a knock-on effect of strong business and fleet tax incentives on new models. There’s more choice than ever before, so a used electric car hunt is no longer limited to old examples of pioneering models like the Nissan Leaf and Renault Zoe.

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Used electric cars haven’t been around for as long as their petrol and diesel counterparts so it’s understandable that many people feel daunted when looking to buy one. The good news is that while EVs bring their own challenges and snagging points, the removal of an internal combustion engine from the mix does simplify things.

Our guide is here to help you decide if a used electric car is the right fit for you. We’ll also explore EV-specific issues to be aware of, including the important question of electric car battery life.

Used EV range, charging and efficiency

It’s common for buyers making the switch from petrol or diesel cars to be concerned about a used electric car’s suitability as a replacement. However, with the current breadth of choice of well-proven used electric cars, this decision is a lot easier to make today than even just a few years ago.

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In most everyday driving on a mix of roads, the vast majority of electric cars will be just as suitable as an internal combustion alternative - many will prefer the smoothness, strong acceleration and refinement of an EV. While range anxiety can be a major concern for electric car newcomers, the fact is that most day-to-day driving consists of shorter-distance trips.

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It’s also worth considering that even on medium-length trips, public chargers can be used to top up after you’ve reached your destination. Supermarkets, gyms, service stations, train stations, airports, hospitals, large car parks and many other common destinations are now likely to have chargers available. 

If you are the sort of driver who supplements shorter daily trips with occasional longer-distance motorway drives, an electric car can still make a lot of sense. While the longest range electric cars can easily crack 300 miles on a single charge, even those with more modest capacities can be great on longer trips. 

Fiat 500 connected to a Gridserve rapid charger

You’ll have to consider a charging strategy for the very longest motorway sessions, but as the UK’s infrastructure continues to improve, this is becoming less of a hassle. It’s worth considering the length and frequency of regular trips like this – charging can easily fit into your usual itinerary if you’d be stopping en route for a coffee, for example.

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It’s important not to get too hung up on range. Larger batteries take longer to fully charge than smaller ones and are also heavier, which can make cars fitted with them less efficient. In some ways, buying an electric car based purely on its maximum range is like buying a petrol car according to its fuel tank size – a statistic that’s only really relevant when tackling a serious road trip. 

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Instead, consider comparing used electric cars based on efficiency figures. Usually given in the format of miles per kilowatt hour, it’s the equivalent of comparing miles per gallon figures for conventional cars. The higher the number, the more efficient the car – and the less money you’ll need to spend on charging. Range then becomes a secondary consideration, perhaps based on your usual longer-distance driving habits.

Electric cars are easiest and most convenient when paired with off-street parking like a driveway or garage, where charging can happen overnight with minimal fuss and cost. Those with on-street parking will have to rely more on the public charger network, but this is much less scary than it sounds: most larger towns and cities in the UK now have slower chargers at the very least, with rapid chargers also becoming more common. It’s worth checking if your local authority has its own network of chargers, as these are usually cheaper than the privately run alternatives.

Used electric car battery health and warranties

With the absence of a potentially troublesome internal combustion engine, the biggest concern with a used electric car should be the health of its battery. Much like those found in electronic devices like phones, electric car batteries degrade over time and can do so faster or slower in certain circumstances.

Advice varies between manufacturers but typically an electric car that has been mostly charged via slower sources – a 7.4kW home wallbox charger, for example – will enjoy better battery health a few years down the line than if a DC rapid charger was used regularly. 

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As a second-hand buyer it’s hard to tell the health of the battery for yourself. Some electric cars will display battery health somewhere in their infotainment system, so it’s worth checking here in the first instance. Otherwise, it’s a good idea to keep an eye on range and battery percentage on a test drive and watch out for irregularities. The best way is to run a diagnostic check at a dealer or specialist, something that’s worth doing for ultimate peace of mind.

Typically, an electric car will lose somewhere in the region of one or two per cent of battery capacity per year, so it’s a good idea to look for the newest example you can afford.

Replacing an electric car battery is more often than not an extremely expensive process and therefore best avoided. Thankfully, manufacturers tend to acknowledge this with generous electric car battery warranties that can outlast the standard warranty for the rest of the car.

Eight-year warranties can be found on many models, although some later cars have a shorter five-year term. Either way, this should give you added peace of mind that the battery will keep its charge. Some even stipulate the acceptable capacity after eight years (often around 70 per cent), and will replace or refurbish the battery if it falls below this level.

Common used electric car problems

Overall, an electric car should be easier to assess and have fewer potential issues than petrol or diesel models. There's no clutch to wear out, no engine oil or spark plugs, and no worry about a cambelt that hasn't been changed on time. 

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EVs are usually well equipped, so check that the infotainment and any extras like heated seats are functioning. Also be sure to check if the car has received the latest over-the-air updates where applicable, and whether any recalls have been issued – you can check this online using the car’s registration number on the UK government website.

Most auxiliary systems like infotainment and air-conditioning are operated via a small traditional car battery, so it’s important to make sure this is in good health, too. 

Many electric cars will have been used in town, so keep an eye out for wheel damage that may extend to the suspension behind it. Some EVs also incorporate exotic materials like carbon fibre in their construction, so make sure bodywork is in sound order too to avoid bills down the road.

The quiet and refined nature of many electric cars means interior rattles and any wind noise can be more noticeable, so listen out for suspect noises and make sure window seals are healthy. 

Electric cars are famously torquey and generally quick off the line as a result. This can cause havoc with tyres so check wear and condition carefully before buying, paying particular attention to the driven wheels.

Ready to make the switch? These are the best electric cars to buy...

Your electric car questions answered

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