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:

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

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.

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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.

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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.

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.”

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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:

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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.”

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

YEEEEHAWWWW!

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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Toecutter
Toecutter
1 year ago

You got lucky. This new battery pack can be made to last a lot longer than it did originally, if you keep it in its state of charge sweet spot for its entire life. Keep it at 20-80% SoC at all times, and that battery might last you 250,000+ miles.

This is probably the fastest vehicle in your fleet as well.

Are you still planning to convert one of your other vehicles?

Iain Tunmore
Iain Tunmore
1 year ago

Good work. This weekend, partially inspired by your quest as a cheap bastard with a love of engineering and particularly the i3, I’m finally going to view and potentially purchase my own i3, an 94Ah fully electric model.

I’ll report back and look forward to trading stories!

Iain Tunmore
Iain Tunmore
1 year ago
Reply to  Iain Tunmore

‘As an equally cheap…’
Wheres that edit button?!

Mr. Asa
Mr. Asa
1 year ago

This is such a mind-fuck from normal DT stories.
Go buy a questionable car
Decide not to buy it!?!?!
Change mind to buy it.
Be patient about buying it
Accept dealer’s word that someone was coming for it!?!?!
Buy it.
Dealer has to change battery for a complete and total win!?!?

Was it crossing the continental divide that did it? Before the waters of life were flowing against you, now they flow towards you?

Pisco Sour
Pisco Sour
1 year ago

With that range, I am wondering how long it’ll take you to drive from San Diego to LA.

Vicente Perez
Vicente Perez
1 year ago

Well played Sir! Congratulations!

Vicente Perez
Vicente Perez
1 year ago
Reply to  Vicente Perez

Ah, and fun fact, the i3 was designed to be upgradable. Meaning, the original idea was that the battery could be easily swapped and replaced with larger ones as technology improved. This was never offered in the US, but it believe it was an option in Europe.

This to say that, although they won’t do it, they could potentially install a 94ah battery if no 60ah is available…

Mthew_M
Mthew_M
1 year ago
Reply to  Vicente Perez

I dunno, at this point, I’m wondering if they might only have 94Ah and 120Ah batteries available. The 60s were quite a few years ago and, like you said, there’s no downside to the 94 or the 120. It’s probably not worth making/stocking the 60 anymore – at least, one can hope.

Dar Khorse
Dar Khorse
1 year ago

Awesome! Nice work, David. Way to stick it out. Sometimes it pays to be a cheap bastard 🙂 In photos, the i3 looks pretty dorky, but in person, it somehow looks better, and I’m not sure why. But based on how unexpectedly thrilled I’ve been with my Fiat 500e (and also with my Polestar 2), I predict that you’re going to LOVE this little car.

Jonathan Mitchell
Jonathan Mitchell
1 year ago

Congrats!!! Hopefully news of that warranty getting out might even mean that more of these stay on the road (at least in CA). What a big miss for the dealer–presumably they could have replaced the battery prior to putting it up for sale. I’ve got an ’18 i3 Rex and can confirm they’re very fun cars to drive! RWD is lovely. On another note, I’d suggest doing a bit of digging on the FB groups and forums about the wool seats, I think I recall that they’re very, very stain prone (like, even water leaves a stain…) And sadly they’re supposedly super hard to clean. I think many folks have taken to adding seat covers. There’s even someone on FB who’s made a business of it, I think they go by love2customized. Looking forward to the i3 content, congrats again!

Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
1 year ago

> California consumer protection laws coming in clutch!

Funny how regulations work for the little guy, eh?

Michael Beranek
Michael Beranek
1 year ago

Sometime warranties and recalls save you bacon. Years ago I had a new car that came with Goodyear Eagles. At about the three-year mark, those tires were getting pretty bad and I was shopping for replacements, which would’ve run about a grand.
Just before I pulled the trigger on a set of Yokos, Goodyear sends me a letter informing me that my tires have been recalled and I’m getting a brand-new set for free. While I wasn’t 100% thrilled with the Eagles, saving a thousand dollars went a long way toward helping me get over it.

Taargus Taargus
Taargus Taargus
1 year ago

The i3 interior really is awesome. I wish more interiors were designed to incorporate more high quality fabrics, woods, etc.

Flyingstitch
Flyingstitch
1 year ago

You’ve been in California what, a few weeks, and you’re already putting “the” in front of highway numbers? Your assimilation is ahead of schedule.

Dan Pritts
Dan Pritts
1 year ago
Reply to  Flyingstitch

Detroit is adjacent to Ontario where you have the 401, the 403, etc. must have seeped in.

William Domer
William Domer
1 year ago

Damn you Tracy. Now I want one again.

Palmetto Ranger
Palmetto Ranger
1 year ago

You were due for “jump in head first and hope for the best” to actually result in something other than landing in a pool of iron oxide. Congratulations on the deal. But your karma meter just reset to 0, so beware the next 25 or so sketchy cars you are tempted to buy.

Phuzz
Phuzz
1 year ago

See, we told you moving to LA would be a good idea! Now you get a brand new battery for your second hand car.

3WiperB
3WiperB
1 year ago

Congrats. Yep… that’s why I brought up that CARB state warranty in the comments when you were thinking of purchasing the car. I would always recommend that someone buying a used EV at least purchases one that has a little warranty left on the battery. It’s always wise to be cautious of EV’s and PHEV’s that may have been dumped by owners at the first sign of battery degradation while they still have some value left, because if the battery goes, repairs exceed the value of the car. I’d say you purchased it perfectly, and hopefully there’s a warranty of some sort on the replacement pack, but at least you’ll still have some miles and time left on the original. I’m not at a point where I would typically recommend buying an older used EV, but I think, once prices return to normal, buying one off lease at 3 years old is a great way to get a car with 5-7 years of warranty on major equipment at a used car price. That’s the way I looked at my 2014 Volt purchase in 2017. I paid $17k for a car that stickered for near $40k. I traded it in for almost $13k 5 years later during crazy used car prices, but if I had waited about 6 months longer, I probably would have gotten my $17k back.

Shooting Brake
Shooting Brake
1 year ago
Reply to  3WiperB

I remember your post. And being that DT is a gentlemen, I am sure he will give you a SHOUT OUT for making him aware of this! ( you saved him a lot of money!)

3WiperB
3WiperB
1 year ago
Reply to  Shooting Brake

I should add that I think DT made a great buy here, and he has the resources and contacts to fix it if something goes wrong. The buyers that bother me are the ones who I see buying a 10-12 year old Chevy Volt with over 150,000 miles on them and in some cases taking out a loan to do so. Clearly it will be their primary vehicle and they are not in financial shape to deal with it if the car dies. The Volt is a great car and has great battery management, but it’s a time bomb when it gets to 10-12 years old.

My 0.02 Cents
My 0.02 Cents
1 year ago

EPA range does not equal freeway miles. I have a Kia EV6 with a EPA 310 miles of range, or 4 mi/kWh, if I’m lucky it might get 210 miles of freeway range , or 3 mi/kWh using 90% of the battery.
However there isn’t a charging station exactly where the range runs out, or low, so I’m stopping typically at 150 -175 miles to charge.
Luckily for you, you have the range extender with a 1.9 gallon (usable) gas tank, so you can go a bit further.
I’d expect around a 55 mile EV range at freeway speed.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
1 year ago

Congratulations David. If anyone deserves this bit of luck it is you.

JDE
JDE
1 year ago

Shakes Head and looks the other direction. Went to California, turned into Bradley Brownell…guess you can put a bunch of Boi Racer parts on her and sip a cup at cars and coffee with him. The underglow only sucks up a few miles of that range I suppose.

JDE
JDE
1 year ago
Reply to  David Tracy

I understand, the Rex makes it a bit more useful as well.

MATTinMKE
MATTinMKE
1 year ago
Reply to  JDE

I gladly left comments like this back at the old site. Let’s keep it that way.

10001010
10001010
1 year ago

‘“Oh, well, I think someone’s coming tonight,” he said.’

I’ll bet my lunch that absolutely nobody was coming in that night or any other night.

10001010
10001010
1 year ago
Reply to  10001010

And David, as long as you’re digging around in the California warranties, see if there’s one regarding hotels having working water. You might be able to get a refund for your stay.

IanGTCS
IanGTCS
1 year ago
Reply to  10001010

Reading your comment I somehow mentally combined hotels and having into hovels and it worked even better.

Chris with bad opinions
Chris with bad opinions
1 year ago
Reply to  10001010

Yep, just another scummy dealer.

Drew
Drew
1 year ago

That sounds like a hell of a deal. Good going!

There’s one near me that I was tempted to check out, but I do not have the backing of the state of California to get a new battery. And, looking at the carfax, I suspect it was shipped here to avoid that warranty. Sold in California twice, then sent up to Idaho to be sold again.

Drew
Drew
1 year ago
Reply to  Drew

I’ll live vicariously through you, David. Glad it is going to work out!

Angry Bob
Angry Bob
1 year ago

Is the carbon fiber rusting?

My 0.02 Cents
My 0.02 Cents
1 year ago
Reply to  Angry Bob

If anyone could make it rust it would be David…

Phuzz
Phuzz
1 year ago
Reply to  Angry Bob

British Leyland would have been able to make carbon fibre rust, and it would have come that way from the factory!

Paul Brogger
Paul Brogger
1 year ago

David has become a white-collar car guy — working the contractual/legal/bureaucratic angle in place of grinding/welding/wrenching. A transformed man!

R3vSteve
R3vSteve
1 year ago

Congrats! And good on you for doing the additional digging about your warranty under Cali law. One would think the Dealer should have this part up front as part of relationship building and customer retention. Sadly its not always the case, especially on used cars.
But I look forward to reading about your experience with this new electric grail.

Frankencamry
Frankencamry
1 year ago
Reply to  R3vSteve

This dealer played the “I’ve got someone on their way to snap it up if you don’t” ploy three separate times. There’s no way they were going to let the car sit for months waiting on the repair rather than dump it on some schmuck that didn’t know better.

If they actually had another buyer lined up I’m sure they’d have sold it out from under David as soon as it was apparent he was digging into warranties and understanding the actual battery condition.

OFFLINE
OFFLINE
1 year ago

The i3 is so weird its cool. Congrats on the score!

Nycbjr
Nycbjr
1 year ago

This is so incredibly amazing David, so happy for you! Also the bit that this covers NY as well is awesome as I am considering plugin hybrids so this is good to know!

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