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.

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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Harmanx
Harmanx
2 months ago

I think DC fast charging was an option on the 2014 i3s. Does this one have it? (If not, it isn’t the end of the world — but just know that you won’t be able to juice up at most commercial charge locations.)

Sid Bridge
Sid Bridge
2 months ago

Well played! Can’t wait to see this thing tackle Moab.

Eurocanard
Eurocanard
2 months ago

Looks a lot like the 2015 I sold to Carvana last year, it was also a gray REx with the Giga World interior. If you haven’t already, check out the i3 Worldwide Group on Facebook, especially in the Files section they have a technical training packet that dives into all the car’s systems.

Kbasa
Kbasa
2 months ago

Welcome to California, sir. We’re glad to have you here and we’re happy to help you.

rootwyrm
rootwyrm
2 months ago

Shh, don’t tell people about emissions warranties!

Actually, wait, no. Do.
Because, see Federal Law – you know, the thing nobody gets to just say “yeah well I don’t wanna” to – does not fuck around with emissions systems. It is the only component on your car where there is a set in stone, federally mandated, non-optional, no denials permitted period, minimum warranty period. States may require it be longer (CARB,) but nobody under any circumstances can say it can be shorter. Full stop.
That requirement? All major emissions control components must be covered for not less than 8 years or 80,000 miles. Period. Dealer argues with you that a rotted out cat isn’t warranty work? EPA-420-F-15-035. Dealer says your ECU failure at 51,000 miles isn’t warranty? EPA-420-F-15-035. Manufacturer says it’s not covered because you “didn’t fail an emissions test”? EPA-420-F-15-035.
https://www.epa.gov/transportation-air-pollution-and-climate-change/frequent-questions-related-transportation-air

Nobody gets to “opt out” or make any excuse whatsoever on these. Period. Chrysler tied up dealers for well over 2 years because they tried to fight it once. Wrangler catalytic converters were rotting out within 8 years, particularly in salty environments. Chrysler tried to claim they shouldn’t have to cover ones registered in areas without emissions tests. The EPA and NHTSA bitchslapped them so hard, they were forced to recall every Wrangler made going back 10 YEARS and replace the entire exhaust system including catalytic converter, at their expense.
Which of course, also set the federal standard as “you don’t need to perform or fail an emissions test; if it would fail a test, then you must cover it, and if you argue we’re going to make it very expensive.”
You show them an OBD-II result that says the CEL’s from something emissions related, and that part is a covered major emissions component, then they have to cover it.

California has an EPA waiver, so can pass stricter laws or engage in stricter rulemaking. CARB is a rulemaking body, and they set the rule as 10 years, 150,000 miles for EV batteries. (See David’s guide above.)
Federal rules at current treat the HV battery (PHEV or EV) as a major emissions component with the same 8 year, 80,000 mile minimum.

tacotruckdave
tacotruckdave
2 months ago
Reply to  rootwyrm

Yeah i wonder if the dealer was in a rush to sell because they knew it was a warranty issue but didnt think Dick Tracy would know. Then no complaints when he mentioned it because they knew?

tsrich92
tsrich92
2 months ago

So, when are you taking this to Moab?

2006C5citroen-Berlingo
2006C5citroen-Berlingo
2 months ago

I have spoken to two people in France with i3s — both all electric. They love them, inspite of the limited range saying the car is just very well sorted.
Both say though BMW dealers hate them. Seems BMW trained two people in the whole country to work on them and the dealers have to have a complicated booking process to get them.
No doubt this might change.
Even Renault, which sells the Zoe, Europe’s best selling electric car, has problems with dealers. Usually they have one sales manager in charge of both sales and scheduling repairs, and one chap (the one with specs) trained to work on them.

Harmanx
Harmanx
2 months ago

That’s excellent news — congrats!

Sunset2PCH
Sunset2PCH
2 months ago

MASTER ACHIVEMENT UNLOCKED.

Wow, I’m shocked this exists.

My replacement warranty i3 battery came really fast – they had the swap done in under a week.

dvdinmotion used to offer the euro menu hack to enable the Rex motor when you want (under 70%). Now I think you need to do it thru coding with BimmerTech. If you go this route you can change a ton of settings, including unlocking the rest of your gas tank so you can use the full tank (another Euro spec option).

I can wait to see some of the enthusiast hacks and fun things you’ll do… there is a TON.

Oh, another one… you can turn off all traction control AND regen so it free wheels, and do donuts in the rain.

you are going to hate replacing the tires all the time, I’ve had tons of punctures.

mabus
mabus
2 months ago

David’s now going to have to unlearn that nasty habit of “using turn signals”. No self-respecting BMW owner would ever do such a thing.

tacotruckdave
tacotruckdave
2 months ago
Reply to  mabus

Yeah but chances are the turn signals never worked on his cars anyhow. Unless Torch was involved.

Data
Data
2 months ago

“The seats need to be cleaned a bit, and there’s a small blemish on the steering wheel…”

David has gone full Hollywood. The man who was perfectly fine driving a rat infested Jeep FC while feeding gasoline into the engine from a container mounted on a wooden pole. Project Postal, Project Krassler, Project Cactus…

I think David was suffering from environmental contamination while living at his Michigan Superfund site. The pollutants are apparently dissipating and he’s getting plenty of sunshine and Vitamin D in California.

Data
Data
2 months ago
Reply to  David Tracy

David, ff anyone deserves to enjoy something nice and modern, it’s you. You’ve earned it.

Daniel MacDonald
Daniel MacDonald
2 months ago

Been interesting following this glad it worked out. I’ve kicked around the idea of getting one of these for a commuter car that’s got a little more personality -and speed than a typical ICE eco box. But the lengths you had to go to on this battery issue really makes me pause.

mr.choppers
mr.choppers
2 months ago

This is a great story thus far. Something will definitely have to go massively wrong, though, because David Tracy owning a car like this and in this condition is akin to dividing by zero. Don’t blame me when the universe collapses into itself when, and if, the repairs are completed.

basspaul
basspaul
2 months ago

It’s amazing how many people don’t know about the extended warranty on emission equipment mandated by law. Here in Canada, it’s 8 years and a bunch of km. I believe it matches more or less the California requirements.

Worse is the service departments that prey on people that don’t know about it.

Read you warranty, folks.

TDI_FTW
TDI_FTW
2 months ago

*Suddenly decides to go look for older/high mileage PZEV in my home state of California*

Here’s to you, David. Thanks for this!

mrcanoehead
mrcanoehead
2 months ago

Did you ever check the range extender? Since you agreed to a short term return warranty, you might want to make sure it works before leaving the car with them for a month and then finding Rex is pooched.

Also, you’ve said that the Rex is a motorcycle engine – which motorcycle was it sourced from? BMW doesn’t put a V-Twin in any of their bikes, unless you count a boxer as a 180 degree V-Twin.

Eurocanard
Eurocanard
2 months ago
Reply to  David Tracy

It’s a parallel twin, built by Kymco in Taiwan and also used in BMW’s C600S/C650GT motor scooters. From my time as a REx owner I never had an issue with it, the nice thing about it is it’s a fairly simple engine by modern standards (naturally aspirated, port, not direct injection, and no variable valve timing).

Ermahgerd
Ermahgerd
2 months ago
Reply to  mrcanoehead

They use the Kymco-built engine from the BMW C 650 scooter.

4jim
4jim
2 months ago

Congratulations, well earned, you deserve a good surprise after years of bad surprises by very old very rusty jeeps.

AkioOhtori
AkioOhtori
2 months ago

What a funny looking Jeep…
Kidding aside, that sounds like a fortuitous win on an interesting car. I look forward to hearing more!

fourmotioneer
fourmotioneer
2 months ago

Congrats! Pretty cool battery pack – refrigerant cooled. Make sure that old AC compressor is up to the task or the a battery will eat the metal when the compressor goes

Somewhat Like a Rock
Somewhat Like a Rock
2 months ago

Congrats on your electric Aztek.

TheHairyNug
TheHairyNug
2 months ago

bravo

Detroit-Lightning
Detroit-Lightning
2 months ago

Amazing! Congrats David!

TheHairyNug
TheHairyNug
2 months ago

I loved the interior of my friend’s i3. Very futuristic, but still functional and comfortable

Greg Holland
Greg Holland
2 months ago

What did this turn in to Skin-a-max overnight! Put on some pants Dave!!!

But you are also a lucky bastard, congratulations, I hope you enjoy the hell out of that car, you certainly have worked for it.

newbalanceextrawide
newbalanceextrawide
2 months ago

I had the opposite- I thought I had an extended warranty, the website showed it was covered, I set up an appointment at a dealership, they told me what needed to be replaced, then told me the warranty was only valid in a handful of Western states. And charged me a diagnostic fee. I specifically asked for a service department survey when they told me all that.

Mthew_m
Mthew_m
2 months ago

The battery replacement is fantastic news, but, are you getting the $4k tax credit for buying a pre-owned electric vehicle from a dealer?

Also, did they give you any indication on which capacity of battery you’re getting? I wouldn’t be surprised at all if there are no more of the older, ‘smaller’ battery your car came with and you get one of the newer high capacity ones.

Mthew_m
Mthew_m
2 months ago
Reply to  Mthew_m

Actually, it seems like you have to do the paperwork, but, there is some information that you’ll need from the dealer. And, not the full $4k, 30% up to $4k – I always forget that part. There’s some info the dealer is supposed to report to the IRS – not sure if that’s just normal tax stuff, or something specific to this credit.

https://www.irs.gov/credits-deductions/used-clean-vehicle-credit

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