Home » I Bought A High-Mileage Electric Car With A Bad Battery. Here’s Why That Was Actually A Stroke of Genius

I Bought A High-Mileage Electric Car With A Bad Battery. Here’s Why That Was Actually A Stroke of Genius

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I foolishly ignored a lot of smart people’s advice, and purchased the cheapest BMW i3 in the country. On the face of it, it was a horrible move. A nine year-old BMW is already questionable. Add the fact that it’s got 135,000 miles on it, and we’re already in “maybe don’t do that” territory. Add that it’s electrified, fully loaded, a first-model year car, and being sold by a dealership that has no clue what shape the battery is in, and what you have is one of the worst ways a human could possibly gamble $10,500. But I, a man smitten by the cute carbon-fiber city car, ignored logic and followed my heart into my back pocket, where I snatched $11,600 in cash (after taxes and fees), and handed it over to the dealer. But I did have one big stipulation: I needed to know what shape that high-voltage traction-battery was in. It turns out: Not good.

Shopping For An EV Was Rough

Early this month, I found myself in a predicament. As I described in my article “I Rented A BMW i3 For A Weekend And Now I’m Sitting In A Cheap Motel Two Hours From Home Contemplating Buying The Cheapest One I Could Find,” shopping for a used electric car has been an absolute nightmare, mainly because figuring out the health of the battery pack is far too difficult. On the i3, dealers can get an approximate understanding of the battery’s health through the car’s digital gauge cluster. Here’s how that works:

But a real test involves discharging the battery all the way and then filling it up, and apparently that process takes a while; it isn’t something that my dealer does before plopping a “for sale” sign onto a car. So after I arrived at the lot and test drove the partially-charged, cheapest clean-title BMW i3 range extender for sale in the U.S., I left uncertain. What shape was the battery in? The dealer had told me that the digital cluster had read 14.5 kWh, which translates to about 77 percent battery capacity, but I know that kWh number fluctuates and should be taken with a grain of salt.

RELATED: We bought a high-mileage Mercedes with a rebuilt title. Here’s everything wrong with it!

So I grabbed a motel nearby so that the dealer could top the battery up overnight and I could experience another test drive the following day. I wanted to see what the car’s maximum calculated range would be with a full electron-tank.

Incidentally, the motel didn’t work out so well:

Unshowered and with a mouth full of unbrushed teeth, I got behind the wheel of the topped-up Cheapest BMW i3 in America, and saw that maximum range per the guess-o-meter infotainment screen was 48 miles. This was over 20 miles less than it was when the car was new; that’s not a good sign:

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Driving the car around, it did seem like the battery’s range that was being lost, per the guess-o-meter, lined up with the distance I was traveling, at least on the highway. In the city, I was able to travel farther than the guess-o-meter was indicating. Still, 48 highway miles? That’s not ideal.

Related: My BMW i3 Depreciated $43,000 In Just Nine Years. The Luxury Features I Got For $10,500 Are Incredible

So I asked the BMW dealership to run a battery capacity check. What I wanted was a report like this one showing the percent of battery capacity remaining:

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By the way, I got that report^ from the dealership’s service team. “If you get me one of these, and it scores above 80 percent, I’ll buy the car,” I told the store. From there, I was told that someone was almost certainly going to buy this car before the shop got the test done, and that I should just buy it now, let the team test the battery, and then back out if the results aren’t to my liking. I initially declined this, then went back and said “Okay, I’ll do it,” but was told by the dealership that they’d changed their minds, and preferred to do the battery test and fix the car up prior to selling it to me.

By the way, when I say “fix the car up,” I’m referring to mending small things like this bumper issue:

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In fact, I gave the dealership a small list of requests prior to me signing the dotted line:

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I wanted to make sure the rattly exhaust was properly secured, that the battery was still healthy, that the gasoline-powered range extender worked (I hadn’t heard it, since it only cuts out when the battery is depleted), that the bumper was fixed, and that the underbody aero shield had been replaced (since it was missing). “We can maybe do some of these,” the dealer told me.

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In the end, I just walked away. I needed to know what shape that battery was in before making a purchase, and the dealer wasn’t even selling the car to me at this point since it wanted to fix some things.

The battery on an EV is such a huge decider of the vehicle’s value that, to know nothing about the capacity was just too big of a liability. I had a great drive and little shoreside walk with my friend and former Jalopnik intern Mack Hogan, since I’d already driven from my place in LA to just north of San Diego (where he lives), and had dinner prior to driving the couple of hours back to my abode:

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Once back in LA, I received an email from the dealership asking if I’d been satisfied with my experience. I responded that I wasn’t thrilled that I couldn’t even learn the state of a car’s battery before buying the car. To me, that’s like hiding a car’s odometer reading. I need an indication of the wear and tear on that car’s battery before buying it.

I Bought The Car Because I’m A Cheap Bastard

Once back at work in LA, I continued shopping for i3s, but couldn’t find one as cheap as the one at that dealership near San Diego. According to BMW’s website, the 133,640 mile i3 I had test driven was the least expensive one being sold by a BMW dealer anywhere in the country:

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I searched car sales websites CarGurus, Autotrader, and Edmunds, and saw not a single i3 REx below $10,499. The cheap bastard in me began to waver. I reached back out to the dealership; the salesperson once again told me I could buy the car and use my five-day money back guarantee, should the battery test come back unsatisfactory. “Okay, I’ll drive down there tonight.”

By late afternoon, I found myself still in my office, and I knew that, if I left at 4PM, I’d be in gridlock traffic all the way down the 5 to San Diego. “Hey, I’ll just come tomorrow morning,” I told the dealer over the phone as I stared at red lines on my Google Maps app. “Oh, well, I think someone’s coming tonight,” he said. Uh. “Wait, so if I had left today, someone might have come and bought the car while I was driving down there?” I questioned.

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Fast forward a few hours, and I — scared into thinking someone was about to snag this i3 from under me — was down near San Diego at the BMW dealership, fatigued from having slogged through three hours of traffic. I then formally bought the car under the condition that the dealership would test the battery and give me the option to back out should the test fail.

The Car Failed The Battery Test

Well, a few days went by, and I received a call from the dealer. They’d apparently done the battery test, but instead of getting a percentage capacity figure, they got “miles of range.” How that makes sense is beyond me, and what’s even more perplexing is the fact that the figure that the dealer stated — 30 miles — was lower than what the gauge cluster had read when I test drove the car the morning after my initial drive.

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In any case, 30 miles is unacceptable, and basically makes the car a golf cart for around-town use, and not much more. It was worth very little money. But before I returned it to recoup my $10,500 + taxes, I did a bit of digging.

Doing Some Research On Battery Warranties

The BMW i3 has an eight year, 100,000 mile warranty. My car was from 2014, so it was nine years old, and therefore didn’t qualify for this warranty. The BMW dealer, while trying to sell me various warranties, told me the vehicle was not eligible for any other warranties. The time was up.

But after looking at the owner’s manual, I saw a section called “California Emission Control Warranty—PZEV,” referencing emissions components for partial zero emissions vehicles. Here it is, with the relevant bit highlighted:

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Hmm. I reached out to the California Air Resources Board, and it told me this:

California mandates that PZEV certified vehicles be covered for 15 years/ 150k miles for all emissions related parts and batteries or energy storage devices of vehicles certified to the Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle (PZEV) emissions standard be covered for 10 years or 150,000 miles, whichever comes first. To determine your vehicle’s emissions standard, refer to the emissions label under the hood of the vehicle to verify eligibility or contact the manufacturer directly for verification.

If your vehicle is warranted due to the year and mileage and the manufacturer is not honoring the warranty, you will need to obtain a case number from the manufacturer directly.  Once you obtain a case number, we can send you a warranty complaint form to begin an investigation.

The emission warranties that California mandates does not include vehicles that have been certified as Zero Emissions Vehicles (ZEV).  To confirm warranty information on a ZEV, you would need to contact the manufacturer directly and they would be able to inform you what the warranty is for the vehicle or battery.  Their contact information can be found in the owner’s manual.

So, PZEVs are covered, but fully electric (zero emissions vehicles) cars aren’t? Is the range extender-equipped i3 a PZEV? CARB’s site directs me to this definition for PZEV:

Partial Zero Emission Vehicle or PZEV – A vehicle emissions rating within California’s exhaust emission standards. Cars that are certified as PZEVs meets the Super Ultra-Low Emission Vehicle exhaust emission standard, has zero evaporative emissions from its fuel system and include a 15 year/150,000-mile warranty on the emissions system. PZEVs run on gasoline yet offer extremely clean emissions and an extended warranty and zero evaporative emissions

Okay, so it’s a vehicle that runs on gasoline, but has zero evaporative emissions from the fuel system and meets SULEV exhaust emissions standards. So, that’s my i3, right? A closer look at that owner’s manual answers the question:

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Check that bottom table out. The EV i3 isn’t covered, but the REX-equipped one is covered by a 10 year, 150,000 mile warranty for the high-voltage traction battery. I called up CARB to confirm, but it just told me to reach out to the manufacturer. I did that, but BMW USA’s consumer representative wasn’t sure, either. Eventually, I sent the chart above to the BMW dealer — specifically a salesperson who’s a real car guy with a heavily-built E46 BMW — and he ran it by his manager.

I’m Getting My Battery Replaced!

He then called me back. “So, we’re going to be able to replace your battery for you. We’ve already started ordering the parts.”

What? I’m getting a new (or refreshed) battery?


The dealer must have determined that the battery capacity was at lower than BMW’s 70 percent threshold needed to qualify for the warranty.

The dealer asked me if I want to drive my car while the shop is prepping for the battery replacement; I declined since the dealership is so far away, but it was an indication that this repair is going to take a while. I have no idea when I’ll be driving my new i3; I’m guessing it’s a few months out.

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But I can be patient for that gorgeous Giga World interior, those heated seats, that self-parking tech, the automated wipers, the adaptive cruise control, that carbon fiber chassis, and that sweet electric powertrain assisted by a motorcycle motor — what an incredible upgrade this car will be from anything I’ve ever owned.

The seats need to be cleaned a bit, and there’s a small blemish on the steering wheel, but otherwise that eucalyptus wood-decorated cabin looks phenomenal. I’m excited to pilot this machine, hopefully with its full 72 miles of EPA-rated range. It’ll be worth it.

There’s still plenty that can go wrong, here. But I’m hopeful, and grateful to the dealer for agreeing to replace my battery without much fuss after I produced that warranty document (without which the job would probably cost me at least $15 grand). California consumer protection laws coming in clutch!

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148 Responses

  1. Congrats, David.

    We bought a 2018 BMW i3 REX about a year ago and really like the vehicle (not so much the BMW service experience, however).

    One of the first things I did was recode the onboard computer so the scooter engine could be turned on a 75% (the European standard). For this, I used the BemmerCode app and a Veepeak OBD scanner.

    Most of our driving is around the metro, and we rarely have to turn the engine. But the 75% configuration made it fairly easy to take an out-of-town trip a few months back. The only inconvenience was having to stop every 100 months to top of the i3 tiny gas tank. (But BemmerCode also allows you to access about another 1/2 gallon of tank space, as they do across the pond).

    Hopefully BMW will be able to give you a new battery with more capacity than the original pack. While they are messing with the car, ask them to check the vehicle’s hard-to-source 12 volt battery as well. I’m about to change the one in mind just to be on the safe side and avoid being stranded on the roadside.

    Best of luck.

  2. I wonder if there’s any chance BMW has run out of the old 18 kWh battery packs (72 mi range) for warranty replacement. So then they swap in a new 42 kWh battery pack for you instead (126 mi range in the REx).

    We have a ‘20 full EV i3 and totally love it. The DC fast charging is rated at a meh 50 kW, but it pegs itself at full speed all the way from 0 to 90% SOC which is insane. It’s also hella lightweight with all the carbon: it’s an EV that weighs only as much as a Corolla, and super cheap on charging cost as a result.

    You’re gonna have a great time with this thing David!

  3. So David went from buying the cheapest rusty Jeep off Facebook and conning friends of his into putting it back in running order with Wish parts, to buying the cheapest hybrid BMW from the dealer network and conning them into putting it back in running order with state consumer protection laws.

    Man, the times are a-changing.

  4. Congrats, this is awesome! Now I have some more good news: the 2023 Inflation Reduction Act has a used EV tax credit, where if you buy an EV from a licensed dealership for $25,000 or less, you can claim 30% of the sale price up to $4000 when you do your taxes next year. That’ll be a few thousand back! There is some more fine print, but it sounds like you should be bale to meet all of it

    1. Ohh man so true.

      I’m anticipating a series of articles upcoming, where David discovers loophole after loophole every week, until finally he’s realizes he’s literally been paid to take ownership of this vehicle lol!

      I wonder if the original owner took the BMW driver training class at the track in Thermal. I recall we got that perk, but we haven’t cashed in on it to date.

      Does that transfer to subsequent owners? Could David gets a free track day out of this??

  5. What I learned, was that you don’t need to know anything mechanical to buy a used electrical vehicle, you should instead concentrate on legalese and warranty fine print.

    If this is our collective future, kill me now.

  6. Nooiiiice! My daughter bought a used Fiat 500e (electric) 3 years ago with 20k mi for $7.5k. The battery was in good shape. Looking back it seems like an incredible steal, even though it was a rebuilt title. She loved it and it ran great. Unfortunately last month she was in a crash that totalled her beloved Fiat. Everyone was fine! The insurance company paid out $12k for the car. 3 years and 15k miles later, she had made $4500 on the car due to the higher value of used cars now. Cars shouldn’t be an investment, but sometimes…. Though her higher insurance premiums due to the crash are going to eat into that $4500 a little.

  7. I sold cars for 5 years, and the dealership was absolutely sick of dealing with you and basically didn’t want you to buy the car because they knew you’d just be returning it, which you would’ve done if this didn’t happen. Not trying to be rude and I understand to a degree, but you were buying a car for 10k with a 50k MSRP, literally the cheapest anywhere in the country, and demanding they fix small blemishes.. the reason they let the warranty go through is because they get paid by BMW exactly the same as if you paid for the new battery yourself.

      1. This salesman was a lying scumbag who TWICE said that someone else was about to show up and buy this very car, so hurry up and buy it before they do! The dealership also did not know diddly about the warranties on the vehicles that they sell.
        They could have had the new battery put in on BMW’s dime, and then retailed it for ten grand more or so, if they had a clue about what they were doing.
        This is another example of why most people can’t stand car dealerships and the lying sacks of dirt who work there.

  8. David, you should take their offer of driving the car while you wait. Our Kia Soul EV just recently had it’s EV battery replaced. It was many months of waiting, and longer then what they stated it would be. It’s your car. At least enjoy it for a while. Also try it out for those days of money back that they listed. You never know what might happen when that REX motor kicks in.
    We got our car back, and the replacement pack wouldn’t accept a charge. So it’s back in the dealership with no ETA and they are just throwing parts at it. Not good. We did what you did and bought a cheap EV that was within the battery warranty limits but unlike you we hoped we didn’t need to use the warranty. I’m very glad we had it since the $14000 pack would nearly be the cost of what we paid for the car.

  9. Is it just me or does an ev with 72 miles range new seem ridiculous. Very short commutes or shopping only. Even assuming an available charger at work, range anxiety seems inevitable. Feels like a bit more than you’d expect from an e* bike. Have to admit though a relative has one and have not asked how he likes it. A friend is happy w his 2 Hyundai Kona electrics which are somewhat affordable and gets about 290. Do not see many Nissan leafs on the roads either which I suspect is due to its similarly limited range.

    1. I have a PHEV with rated 53 miles of range, and it covers almost all my driving around town. Basically everything but road trips and airport runs. Bumping that to 72 miles would make it everything but road trips.

    2. A 72 mile range does not seem rediculous. I live 4 miles from my office, 2 to 3 miles from several grocery stores, 4 miles from a large hospital, 4 miles from a major shopping mall, etc. I could go on and on. People rant about the low range of electric cars but I don’t see the problem unless you need to drive a long way. Even my father in law who lived out in the country was only 14 miles from a good grocery store, 12 miles from a small hospital, and 45 miles from a larger hospital. I am not an electric car owner but at these apparent low prices I would consider it. I do not spent much money on vehicles in general and I surely don’t ever buy new ones.

  10. I initially leased a 2016 i3 to see if the EV thing would work for me; neat little car, it did, so I bought a used 2017 i3 for something like 18k in Colorado. Not a bad city commuter, quicker than people expect.

    Nice on the free battery but with a max range of ~130 miles in the summer, it’s not much fully loaded.

    The bigger expense btw is the cost of those absurd tires. That’s the main reason I got rid of our i3 and went with a Y next for my wife, and then a Model 3 for me. It’s nice to have 300+ range, we drove the Y back to Michigan, the super-charging network is pretty great.

    1. You can always get a more common size that is close to the stock size. There are no tire size police.

      Wait a minute… according to Tire Rack:
      Front Size 19″ 155/70-19 Rear Size 19″ 175/60-19
      Front Size 20″ 155/60-20 Rear Size 20″ 175/55-20

      They are ridiculously skinny tires on too-large rims! The ONLY ones available on Tire Rack are Bridgestone Ecopias, at about a thousand bucks for a set of 4.
      So, for a once-only investment, swap out the wheels for a smaller diameter, say, 16″, and go with something a hair wider that will fit without rubbing… if you can find wheels that fit with an appearance that you like.
      Or get a vehicle that is less… inconveniently unconventional.

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