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