Home » I Bought A $2000 Electric Car With A Failing Battery. Here’s How Bad It Is

I Bought A $2000 Electric Car With A Failing Battery. Here’s How Bad It Is

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It’s 2023 and gas prices are getting out of hand, especially in California. “That’s fine, I’ll just snag a cheap used EV,” you think to yourself as you crack open Facebook Marketplace. “Hey, this 2011 Nissan Leaf is only $2000; what a deal!” you think as you slam your laptop shut and rush to the bank before someone can steal this smokin’ bargain from under you. Fast forward a few hours and you’re driving home in your shiny (ish), new (ish), only-moderately-dented electric car only to realize: You might not actually make it back. This is the state of used electric cars in the U.S. in 2023: The very bottom of the market doesn’t just suck, it is filled with some of the most useless vehicles in all of automotive history, as I discovered first-hand with the dirt-cheap Nissan Leaf I bought this past weekend. Here, let me explain.

If you’ve got two grand in your pocket and need some wheels, you’ve got options. Yes, even in 2023. Snag an older, high-mileage gasoline-powered vehicle with a stickshift and with a bit of cosmetic damage, and you’ll have reasonably reliable transport for under the $2G mark. I’ve done this numerous times.

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But if you want a working EV for $2000, and you don’t qualify for any incentives (EV incentives are bringing decent used EVs like my BMW i3 closer and closer to within reach for those shopping at the very bottom of the market), your options are slim. Autotrader compiled a list last year of the cheapest used EVs on its site, and the top three were:

  1. 2012 Nissan Leaf
  2. 2012 Mitsubishi i-MiEV
  3. 2012 Ford Focus Electric

Note that this list excludes vehicles with malfunctioning batteries; so what if you buy the already-cheapest EV, but with a battery whose health is severely compromised? Well, you get a very, very cheap machine. Like, $2000 cheap. That is, by far, the least expensive functioning 2011 Nissan I’ve find near me. In fact, around LA, the very cheapest Nissan in 2011, the Versa, costs at least double what a used Leaf costs (the $2,700 one below needs a new transmission). That’s because a decently maintained gasoline car, even with 200,000 miles on the clock, is a much, much more usable machine than an early Leaf with even just half as many miles.

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The Leaf I bought has under 70,000 miles on it, and is actually in fantastic shape other than the driver’s side fender, which, while parked on the side of the street, received a bit of percussion from a rogue driver (not a Nissan Rogue, but those are so common that it might have been).

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The interior is lovely, actually, and comes equipped with navigation! The sounds the car makes when you start it up, the fun screens and lighting — it makes for a rather futuristic experience. The car feels special when you get behind the wheel:

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Take the shifter; sure, it’s a bit odd, requiring you to pull a little spring-loaded ball to the left and down for drive and to the left and up for reverse. For park, you just hit the button on top. It’s a little odd, but it’s at least different, and adds to the vehicle’s unique vibe.

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The Leaf’s backup camera is a little antiquated, and so is the nav, but honestly, the fact that this 2011 car even has those features is awesome. And that little button on the top left of the steering wheel that immediately brings up charging stations on the navigation screen? Genius!

Plus, the interior is legitimately comfortable, with a ride quality that’s surprisingly supple, especially compared to that of my i3. Sadly, I didn’t have much time to appreciate the Leaf’s ride since I was afraid I might not actually make it home.

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After dishing out 20 Benjamins and taking ownership of the title (and also planning an off-road trip, since Celso, the Leaf’s seller, has a TJ and goes to the same off-road park that I frequent), I left the kind man’s house almost immediately regretting my purchase (I say “almost,” because I knew I was buying a basket case. Even if not quite this bad). It became clear right away that the over-30 miles of estimated range stated on the Guess-O-Meter were just not going to happen. Thirty kilometers maybe!

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You’ll note that on the right side of the gauge cluster are five bars, two of them red. These are the battery health indicator bars, and you can find various tables around the internet describing how many bars correlate to how much remaining battery capacity. As this table from electricvehiclewiki.com shows, my Leaf’s battery capacity is probably somewhere around 45 percent. That should give me about 35 miles of range (range when new was an EPA-estimated 73 miles), and yet, no matter how gingerly I drove my Leaf from Celso’s house to mine, it seemed like I was going to maybe — MAYBE — get 25 miles. I do need to inflate the tires a bit, so that should help with range, but it probably won’t make a giant difference. I think 45 percent is optimistic, and that’s just sad.

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Here’s a look at that first drive home:

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I made it back, but with only five miles of estimated range left, which probably translates to about three miles of actual range. I put the car on a charge and topped the battery up; it only took about 6.5 kWh, which is a little alarming given that this is a 24 kWh battery.

Nissan Leaf 2000
Photo: Facebook seller

In any case, with a battery topped up, I decided another test was in order: I planned a drive from Studio City, California to Santa Monica — a 17 mile drive normally, though I decided to take the scenic, shorter route through Bel Air, even if it took more time. This would cut off four miles.

Nissan Leaf2002
Photo: Facebook seller

Unfortunately, as you can see in the video towards the top of this article, road closures pushed the trip closer to 20 miles, and — worried that I’d get stranded with a dead battery between my house and Santa Monica — I bailed. Yes, all it takes to ruin a simple 13-mile trip in this 2011 Nissan Leaf is a few road closures.

 

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2011 Nissan Leaf 16 Source 2011 Nissan Leaf 15 Source 2011 Nissan Leaf 14 Source

You can see some photos of the Leaf’s battery pack above, along with its drive-unit (it’s all under the hood; the Leaf is front-wheel drive). If you really want to get into the weeds of this pack, Weber State University’s EV-guru, John D. Kelly gets in deep:

To Nissan’s credit, the Leaf was early to the EV game, and you can argue that it was America’s first truly high-volume lithium-ion battery-equipped electric car. It also saw a number of battery-related improvements over the years. Still, when it launched for the 2011 model year with an air-cooled battery pack, the Leaf was pretty much doomed to a short life. Those 48 modules of pouch cells, which together give the vehicle 24 kWh of capacity when new, just aren’t managed properly to allow them to live beyond about 10 years, 100,000 miles without significant degradation. Check out Nissan Leaf owners forums, and you’ll see: Nissan Leafs, especially the first few model-years, are almost all down to about 30 to 40 miles of remaining range.

The result is that they are the very cheapest “functional” electric car you can buy. The question is: Should you?

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Nissan Leaf2003
Photo: Facebook seller

My first couple of tests tell me that the answer is “no” unless you live within about eight miles from work. In that case, it might be nice to drive an EV that likely won’t require as much maintenance as a gasoline vehicle, which — especially in the cold — doesn’t take kindly to short trips, anyway.

For the majority of people, though, the Nissan Leaf is a paperweight, largely useless unless you plan on tearing the thing apart to learn more about EVs and to use the parts in an EV conversion. That’s what I’m doing.

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Alec Weinstein
Alec Weinstein
8 months ago

And by EV conversion, do you mean plopping the body on a chopped up LJ? or is there a Jeep in the pipeline that needs power?

CRX89
CRX89
8 months ago

Morris Minor EV?

Jesus Chrysler drives a Dodge
Jesus Chrysler drives a Dodge
8 months ago

David, since California rust will be in short supply, looking forward to the pic of you in coveralls, stained with dielectric grease and dirty electrons.

Last edited 8 months ago by Jesus Chrysler drives a Dodge
TheHairyNug
TheHairyNug
8 months ago

The thing about using them for EV conversions is that the tech is so mediocre, it kind of lessens the reason for busting out the wrench in the first place. Usually when you’re putting in sweat equity, you kind of want to make the whole endeavor worth it. I say, use the money in saved labor costs to put in hardware that will actually not make you regret the dozens to hundreds of hours that you’re investing

Jalop Gold
Jalop Gold
8 months ago
Reply to  TheHairyNug

I’m betting that may be the goal, is hooking it through a low range case and manual tranny

Jonathan Myers
Jonathan Myers
8 months ago

Notice the tricky math the battery capacity gauge does. 1st bar is a drop of 15%. The second and each subsequent bar is 6.25%. Nissan was trying to downplay the degradation of the battery. Although you do have to give them credit for even showing that data as most other manufacturers bury it.

Jesus Chrysler drives a Dodge
Jesus Chrysler drives a Dodge
8 months ago

Don’t hate on the Leaf and its “crap battery management.” Nissan made the conscious decision to field a mass-market EV, and you know what? They made compromises and it worked.

I bought the almost exact same car David did as a commuter appliance. I calculated that after 5 years, I’d save enough on gas to recoup the entire purchase and operating cost. I was off by only 4 months. Now, 7 years and 70k later, it still has 75% capacity and I could literally donate it and still make money.

Battery life management engineering is a pedantic argument at this price/value point.

Last edited 8 months ago by Jesus Chrysler drives a Dodge
Jesus Chrysler drives a Dodge
Jesus Chrysler drives a Dodge
8 months ago
Reply to  David Tracy

That’s why the 2-year old, off-lease gen1 Leafs were such a smoking deal. $14k for an EV that still had 95% of its battery capacity. You could buy them all day long in 2015. Yes, my argument does not hold for full MSRP.

Paul Govan
Paul Govan
8 months ago

Watch this “Fully Charged” episode to see how a very busy and well-respected UK EV specialist fits good healthy Leaf batteries from crash-damaged Leafs to battered-battery low-range Leafs like this – for around £6,000. It takes them just FOUR hours and they usually almost triple the range of the previous worn-out battery-pack. Watch:
https://youtu.be/C4nS_tSQiVQ?si=e3lNrc1oJVGnTY4A
Paul G(EVUK)

Scottingham
Scottingham
8 months ago

Just for comparison, my 2015 LEAF has 50k miles and 11 bars of battery still.

Scottingham
Scottingham
8 months ago
Reply to  Scottingham

A bit more background info…2015 was when they introduced the ‘lizard pack’ that degrades much less in hot climates.

I also only really use L1 charging and rarely charge to 100%. Every so often I’ll use an L2 charger at a park or something, but this is not typical.

For my uses, if the battery is 2/3rds full I can get anywhere I’d need to get.

Jonathan Myers
Jonathan Myers
8 months ago

I had a 2013 Leaf that I purchased used and it was great for my 40 mile round trip commute. Besides replacing the windshield wipers and eventually tires there was nothing else to do for maintenance. It was a pacific northwest car so never saw the high temperatures that cook the battery in short order like Phoenix or probably socal. Even so the battery dropped below 80% capacity in less than 40,000 miles. You really can’t fast charge with a passively air cooled battery and the “fast charging” network was terrible. I saw that the Tesla Supercharger Network was actually being built out and you could drive a Tesla just like a regular car so I dumped the Leaf and purchased a used Model S with 40,000 miles. This was before used car prices went nuts so it was actually a very good deal. The battery was in great shape then (thanks to active liquid cooled thermal management) and even now at 10 years old and 100,000+ miles the battery capacity is a bit better than 85% of new. The Leaf was a good starter commuter car if you lived someplace with moderate temperatures. It had great cargo capacity and if Nissan had only addressed the battery thermal management, it could have been a great long term commuter.

Scott Ross
Scott Ross
8 months ago

I’d be for it. Especially if I lived in a warmer climate. I messed with the cells on my 300k Prius. I don’t recommend, just replace the whole battery pack. I am interested in how much a leaf battery costs. Unfortunately, Dorman doesn’t offer a battery for the Leaf, like they do the Prius. Looking forward to what you do with this car.

Vetatur Fumare
Vetatur Fumare
8 months ago

What happens if you go get yourself an SR20DE drivetrain from Japan? Would it be registerable anywhere outside of the Wild West and Florida?
I know, a swap would obviously require that the entire car be re-wired, but a man can dream.

Brandon Forbes
Brandon Forbes
8 months ago
Reply to  Vetatur Fumare

Should be registerable most places honestly. It would be interesting because as an EV, there are no tailpipe emissions type tests, so I think you might even be able to get it registered in Commifornia because they are not looking at emissions on what used to be an EV I would think. I’m probably wrong, but that could be funny.

Pappa P
Pappa P
8 months ago
Reply to  Vetatur Fumare

Your dream is a 140hp Nissan Leaf?

Vetatur Fumare
Vetatur Fumare
8 months ago
Reply to  Pappa P

I aim for the tree tops.
It’d be more powerful than any of my other three cars, and they’re fun enough. But fine, I’ll supercharge it.

MP81
MP81
8 months ago

Where are you parking all these vehicles?

Arrest-me Red
Arrest-me Red
8 months ago
Reply to  MP81

Looks like at the apartment with extra large spaces, as long as kittens have not claimed them.

MP81
MP81
8 months ago
Reply to  Arrest-me Red

Whatever is parked there will be knocked off.

Since they are on the ground, a hole shall be dug, in order to knock it down the hole.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
8 months ago

“I’m a Leaf on the wind, watch how I soar.” (This doesn’t end well.)

Jb996
Jb996
8 months ago
Reply to  Canopysaurus

Firefly fan?

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
8 months ago
Reply to  Jb996

Yup

Jalop Gold
Jalop Gold
8 months ago
Reply to  Jb996

Well, serenity

Mark Kress
Mark Kress
8 months ago

You can buy an additional battery designed to fit in the back, but they’re not exactly cheap and you’ll have to give up cargo space.

Beasy Mist
Beasy Mist
8 months ago

People love to point at the Leaf as an example of “see! they just fail!” without mentioning the trash thermal management of a Leaf battery. It relies entirely on air cooling which is slightly better than nothing at all.

Boulevard_Yachtsman
Boulevard_Yachtsman
8 months ago

These air-cooled Nissan batteries, they
Loose Electricity And Fail.

ChefCJ
ChefCJ
8 months ago

If you aren’t already (I’m sure you are), you might get familiar with a YouTube channel called Aging Wheels. He does a load of super interesting EV content on used shitboxes, and it may come in handy.

MDMK
MDMK
8 months ago

This could be the EV future for millions of low income would-be-owners of older used cars. Even the most clapped out old Impala can give its 4th or 5th owner living paycheck to paycheck a couple hundred miles of motoring before they have to search for a place to safely pump gas (esp. in high crime areas), all while said vehicle nickels and dimes them with needed repairs. Now picture these same buyers being stuck with choosing from a selection of old EVs with a nearly dead and possibly irreplaceable batteries while still needing other repairs done. Even if said owners could keep them charged at home until they’re functionally dead, it remains a losing proposition.

R53 Lifer
R53 Lifer
8 months ago
Reply to  MDMK

Except it isn’t. This is already 10+ year old technology. 95% of 2023 vehicles are still gas powered, meaning 95% of 20 year old cars in 2043 will still be gas. And 20 years gives the aftermarket a while to figure out low cost replacement batteries.

Harmanx
Harmanx
8 months ago

Another way to look at this is to compare it to a Changli-type EV purchase from, say, Alibaba. An old Leaf will get you further and faster (and in greater comfort and safety — and with more potential passengers/cargo) for less money.

Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
8 months ago
Reply to  Harmanx

But will it have the sweet scent of lead acid battery powder and chainsaw oil?

Harmanx
Harmanx
8 months ago

Only if you hang a sweet lead acid and chainsaw air freshener from the mirror.

Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
8 months ago
Reply to  Harmanx

Deep cut, I like it.

Vicente Perez
Vicente Perez
8 months ago

Thanks for pointing out the biggest reason why this Leaf is toast: the battery is air cooled.

This was a very misguided decision made by only a few early manufacturers. Unfortunately, the anti EV crowd uses the Leaf as an example of unreliability of all batteries, which is just wrong.

And regarding affordable used EVs, one can find cars like the Fiat 500e for just a bit more, and with a much more reliable battery.

Lokki
Lokki
8 months ago

This here’s a story about a blogger named Dave.
Had a day-job at Chrysler as an engineering slave.

One day he’s in the backyard ruining a Jeep for good,
When up through the lawn comes bubblin’ crude.
Oil that is:

 EPA, Superfund.

When the city finally starts towing away cars
Friend Jason figures prosecution can’t be very far. Tells David “Bud you better flee”

So David loads up the Mustang and moves to Los Angles:
Civilization that is: 

Runnin’ water, electric lights. 

So David gets a nice apartment and a couple cats. Starts wearing clean new clothes and the living’ pretty fat. No more shower sketti: ain’t no more need for that. 

Gets a regular pay check – ain’t no need to skimp. Now it’s delivery pizza and wheelbarrows full of shrimp. 

Fat shrimp. Already peeled.

Now David’s gone all Hollywood and got a TWO ‘lectric cars . Looks pretty cool but don’t go very far. One’s a BMW and totally not a Jeep but it’s totally in character cause he got it really cheap.

Young fella, city lights, girl friend?

Last edited 8 months ago by Lokki
Viking Longcar
Viking Longcar
8 months ago

David, you’ve bought another EV submarine?

Long_Time_Reader_First_Time_Poster
Long_Time_Reader_First_Time_Poster
8 months ago
Reply to  Viking Longcar

Please tell me you channeled that guy mocking the Russian ambassador in THfRO. I read that in his voice.

ElectricOffRoaders .com
ElectricOffRoaders .com
8 months ago

I’d like to point out that these older EVs – even the ones with significantly reduced range due to battery degradation – can still enjoy long and productive second lives as farm-use-only vehicles.

For land owners and folks with small hobby farms… the prospect of being able to buy a small, low-maintenance electric vehicle that comes with a roof, doors, windows, heat, A/C, a windshield, windshield wipers, seating for five with latch points for baby car seats, and a 25-mile range – all for less than $5,000… is absolutely amazing.

If all you need is to get from the house to the barn and garden a few times a day on well-maintained gravel farm roads, that kind of vehicle is IDEAL. You can still tow a small, light-duty trailer and carry all the square bales and feed and fence posts and wire and veggies and chainsaws and whatever else you might need to get your chores done. You don’t need a Can-Am General or a Polaris Ranger for most routine farm chores, and a 2012 Nissan Leaf is way more comfortable than either of those – for a small fraction of the price.

If you want better traction, just swap out your factory tires for some all-terrain tires or even some mud tires; and if you’re really worried about getting stuck, get creative and rig up a winch to front of the car.

There are some really interesting options out there too. The Leaf is probably the least attractive one of them. Don’t forget about the Chevy Spark EV and Fiat 500e, both of which have a little more character in my opinion. The first generation Bolt will also join these ranks soon enough.

You can’t buy a new golf cart for the kind of money we’re talking about here – or even a decent trail bike. Take these tired, old EVs and put ‘em to work! You can make a decent farm truck out of just about anything.

DadBod
DadBod
8 months ago

Agreed, another use case is a high school kid in my town could get to school and activities easily with 25 miles of range

EmotionalSupportBMW
EmotionalSupportBMW
8 months ago

As a small farm owner, though my wife is the one that works the farm. A Leaf might be a bit too heavy and underpowered for off-road farm use. Our farm is in the Northeast and directly on a river. So muddier than average. Still feels like you would breaking out the tractor to pull it out often. And at 5k, you can get a Farm Fit. Which might be the best farm truck ever invented,

Jesus Chrysler drives a Dodge
Jesus Chrysler drives a Dodge
8 months ago

Around here (Puget Sound) there’s an entire subcategory of “island cars” that people keep at their cabins in the San Juans or use to run back and forth from the ferry terminal if they work in Seattle.

The Mark
The Mark
8 months ago

I was just thinking this! This car would work fine in Key West, which is only 2 by 4 miles and some people just get around in golf carts. Better find a high space in a parking garage if a hurricane hits, though.

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
8 months ago
Reply to  The Mark

Yeah, for a second home in a small community where you don’t do much traveling once you get there, something like this is still fine. Stick it on a battery tender when you’re not there, and you don’t have to worry about gasoline degrading if you leave it sit for x number of months. Key West is a great example – neighborhood electric vehicles (glorified golf carts) can’t go outside the actual city limits, but a low range electric car with a degraded battery is still legally a car, and can therefore still drive to Stock Island.

The Mark
The Mark
8 months ago
Reply to  Ranwhenparked

Exactly! It will get you to Home Depot, Publix, and Hogfish for dinner, then back home with charge to spare, all in air conditioned comfort and much safer than a golf cart. But in a hurricane evacuation, you won’t make the trip to Miami, so you better park it in an elevated place and hitch a ride in an ICE vehicle.

Hondaimpbmw 12
Hondaimpbmw 12
8 months ago
Reply to  Ranwhenparked

Catalina Island (maybe). I’m not sure if they limit golf carts and such or not, but ICEs can only replace another ICE taken off the island.

JDE
JDE
8 months ago

the big question is should you go all out and see about spending 3-5 K on an enhanced pack that almost doubles the KW? Or will that just die quick too? https://evsenhanced.com/product/battery-module-for-nissan-leaf-ze1-62kwh/

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
8 months ago
Reply to  JDE

That’s in New Zealand dollars, so actually about $1500 US for the smaller battery pack, but you have to also allow shipping, and finding someone to do the installation (no way in hell is that going to be me) and paying him. If you could do all that for sub-$3k all-in, I’d say its worth it given the car itself was only $2k and is in decent shape otherwise and $5,000 is scraping bottom for a good used car, but when you get closer to $5k, that’s where you lose me, because $7,000 will still buy a decent ICE car these days with far more capabilities.

PaysOutAllNight
PaysOutAllNight
8 months ago
Reply to  Ranwhenparked

Per module pricing, not per pack. You’d have to buy a stack of modules for a full Leaf battery replacement.

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
8 months ago

Good lord, never mind then. Someone has to just really love their Leaf to the exclusion of any other car to justify that

PaysOutAllNight
PaysOutAllNight
8 months ago
Reply to  JDE

That site you linked is showing prices per module, not for the battery pack.

A quick search says there are 48 battery modules in a Nissan Leaf battery pack.

It might be affordable to replace a module or two, if the car and the rest of the modules are in like-new condition, but realistically, this is just further proof of how badly Nissan screwed this up.

SuperNova
SuperNova
8 months ago

can you put a generator in the funk and pipe it out the dented driver’s side fender?

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