Buying a second hand leaf or not?


So a recent article in a newspaper highlighted the very reasonable price of a second hand Nissan Leaf.

leaf-sun3This does not seem particularly revelatory to me having myself bought a second hand Nissan Leaf four months ago for £8500. However on the forum it has certainly prompted a lively debate.

It seems the camp is split between those who feel that it is too risky to buy a second hand Leaf as the potential for problems outside of the warranty is too great and those like me, who acknowledge that there are some risks which are harder to quantify than for a petrol/diesel (ICE) car but that logically there should be no reason to assume these cars will not be very reliable, with the exception of the battery, which I will address later. Whilst this whole blog is basically an extended road test of a second hand leaf, the debate about this particular issue has been pointed enough to be worth commenting on.

The arguments put forward by the new car side of the debate seem to be as follows:

  • “You can lease one for the same monthly cost as you were paying for fuel in your old car”. And whilst I think that is true, after you pay about £3200 deposit, which you don’t get back, you will soon forget how much your old gas guzzler used to cost you to run and the indignation you had with that cost will be replaced by a new indignation at the monthly lease fee instead.
  • “Its a brand new technology and we are concerned that it might break – we have to have a warranty!”. Well that’s the trouble with the car industry isn’t it? When new cars are sold to us they cannot say enough about the amazing reliability, but once the discussion turns to 3+ year old cars they become a ticking time bomb waiting to fail and cost you a fortune. Of course they do, the industry not just wants, it positively needs you to buy a new car every three years, and if not you personally then certainly a large number of other people have to buy one to keep the wheels turning.
  • “I can’t be bothered with the MOT-lottery.” – so one day per year (which can be a rainy Saturday if you wish), you cannot spare a few minutes of your free time to take your car along to a garage and have them check that its safe? Why? Is it because a lot of garages are dishonest, or you believe they are dishonest? I would agree with you, but then your mission is to find a garage you trust and then keep using them. Here’s a tip take your car to your local council-run MOT station, they do not do repairs, just test the cars – so you get a fair test. Taxi’s, buses, limo companies, movie studios etc… all use these stations for precisely this reason.

What all of these arguments really come down to is that some people are so adverse to risk, which I always find amazing as so many of life’s risks are so far beyond your control you are clutching at air trying to manage them, that they are willing to pay a LOT of money every three years to remove that risk. Fair enough but I feel differently zero risk=zero reward=zero excitement.

Here is my argument for buying a Nissan Leaf/or other EV at 3 years old for £8500 with 20k miles on the clock.

  • It’s an extremely reasonable price for a car so new, in such good condition and such low mileage that it would be silly not to buy it. When this car was new it was £26k after a government grant. It has a steep depreciation curve because a lot of people are wary about new technology and because real long term data about reliability of this car does not yet exist, the oldest production models, like mine, are only 3.5 years old. There are two ways to interpret this. 1) these others are right and one should be very wary as there is a real chance these cars will be very unreliable long term and the potential for large costs to keep them running is real. 2) People are naturally cautious about things they have little understanding or experience of and therefore may in fact be “erring” too much on the side of caution. The ICE car industry has been very keen to be negative about electric vehicles and to perpetuate the myth that they are slow, the batteries die off rapidly and that buying one is a bad move. It is in their interests to do so as most car makers sell ICE cars with only a handful offering electric vehicles (EV’s), and for those who do it represents a tiny fraction of their overall business. So I feel this is actually an opportunity, if other people undervalue second hand electric cars – that’s their problem, but I am very happy to scoop one up at a lower price than a corresponding ICE car would have been at 3 years old.
  • If we put aside the battery for reasons that will become apparent, I believe there is every chance this car will in fact be very reliable. The EV consists of a lot of solid state components i.e. not moving parts, such as a battery, electronic modules to control the motor and charging and the other systems we expect of a car. The only moving parts are broadly the wheels, brakes, steering and motor. In an ICE car there are hundreds of moving parts in the engine alone, add to that the perishable parts such as an exhaust system which is subject to huge corrosion by the nature of what it does, fluids such oil and water and its easy to see there are a very large number of things that need to be checked/replaced/serviced and repaired. Much of this does not exist on an EV. The issues around these wear components are well known for ICE cars and reliability is a long way ahead of the cars of 30-40 years ago, but in many cases they will still fail, we are just generally more comfortable with these risks as we are more familiar with them. Why is the service interval for the Leaf 18,000 miles, rather than the 12000 or even 6000 on some ICE cars? Because there are not many parts to check/maintain, the motor needs a little periodic lubrication, there is a differential to drive the wheels which might need its oil changed every 60k miles or often more, the brakes/tyres are checked, and the bushes that hold the suspension together, and the aircon system might need gas – these are the same as any other car. The rest is electronic checking of the battery and other modules. There are no reasons to assume the solid state modules will fail provided they are well made to begin with and capable of doing the job they are intended for. Even the moving parts that do exist on the Leaf are in some cases subject to less wear and tear than on an ICE car. Brakes being a prime example where regenerative braking reduces brake wear hugely.

Now we come to the battery, the real issue at hand.

Will the battery gradually degrade? Yes. Will the battery have to be repaired/replaced at some point? Yes. How soon will this happen? Don’t know. How much will it cost? Don’t know!

So based on this uncertainty its not hard to see why there is apprehension about second hand EV’s. However as with all questions that get answered “don’t know” there is always the possibility of making an educated guess or discussing the possibilities.

Nissan warranty covers the battery and drive train of the car (motor and inverter/speed controller etc…) for 5 years. The detail appears to be that they will replace/repair a battery if it drops below 9 bars out of 12 on the battery health meter on the dash i.e. 75% capacity. So far I have not heard of anyone with this problem in the UK, a few people have had issues in very hot climates, one or two ex-demo Leafs that have been sold had more battery wear than expected as they had been kept fully charged for long periods and not used which is bad for battery health. Each time this has happened and the warranty conditions for a battery have been met a new battery has been provided, not a repair. This is probably because Nissan want to do analysis on failed batteries in order to learn more about the problems and want the battery packs back to Japan in one piece.

The lithium batteries as used on the Leaf, do not degrade as quickly as the types used in mobile phones and laptops. These devices suffer relatively short battery life as they are often too hot, such as mobile phones in trouser pockets, or laptops with hot processors and hard drives within them. Also these devices are prone to being charged up to 100% and left fully charged, at higher than ideal temperatures for long periods, which is not good practice for high battery life. In contrast, with a bit of thinking ahead, you can charge your electric car so that the battery goes to 80% not 100% and finishes charging just before you need to drive it. When this isn’t practical its not that important as hopefully it will be infrequent rather than daily.

The cost of a replacement battery when my car was new in 2011 was £12600, it is now £5000. Its not difficult to see this dropping to £3000 or lower in 3 years time. If I assume my fuel savings per year based around 12k miles are £2000 (I was putting £30-50 per week into my previous cars which in recent years were all very economical i.e. LPG vehicles) and my battery lasts for another 3 years this gives me £6000 to play with to replace the battery, more than enough! Also given that I’ve paid £8500 for the car not £25k (or £3200 deposit and £99/month for a lease), my fuel savings are larger relative to this cost. And as I will say below my £8500 might turn into £5000 if I break the car into pieces when I’m done with it.

It may be possible to either attempt a DIY recondition of a battery pack, removing failing cells and replacing them or have this carried out by a third party. I am certain a secondary market will emerge run by enthusiastic electronic engineers helping owners of older EV’s to keep their batteries in good condition, or upgrade them to newer battery technology as/when it becomes available. Just such people exist to provide engines/gearboxes for older cars of all types. You can buy cell packs as used in the Leaf for $129, of which 48 are required to make a complete battery. However it is unlikely that they will all require replacement. This means a complete replacement of cells can be done for £4000 now. These costs are likely to fall as time goes on. It might be large and powerful but it is just a battery after all.

At the end of the day there are very few Nissan Leaf’s at the scrap yards, so second hand parts are very valuable. In the event of the car being uneconomical to repair it will be worth a considerable amount in pieces (as all cars are hence scrap dealers never really struggle to make a living). This further insures the buyer of a second hand leaf against the “nightmare scenario” many feel might occur – a dead car worth essentially nothing!

UPDATED 24-03-15

Nissan release figures on reliability over the first 4 years of the Leaf.

1 vehicle in 10000 had a failed battery! This makes it more reliable by a considerable margin than a petrol or diesel engine.

It will be very interesting to see the 6-7 year data in three years-time!



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