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
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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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Speedway Sammy
Speedway Sammy
1 year ago

One site indicated the battery replacement (parts + labor) is $16,000. If this is correct, that’s more than what you paid for the car so well done. But it also means once off warranty, the replacement becomes pretty uneconomic.

Dolsh
Dolsh
1 year ago

“Okay, I’ll drive down there tonight.”

When I read that, I gasped a “No!” out loud in a way that startled my wife and required an apology. “Don’t let the bad sales people win!” I said to myself.

But man…I love how it turned out. The i3 has always been a fav of mine.

Jb996
Jb996
1 year ago

The dealer was definitely shady and hoping for a naive buyer would buy it before you decided.

We could test the battery, but that’s too much work; so buy it first. We might be able to fix some of the major loose rattling parts, but no promises. That’s too much work. The battery is dead. Sure we SHOULD know that it would be covered by BMW corporate, and we could tell you that to sweeten the sale, but then we will have to do cheap warranty work. And the next buyer won’t even know to look into it.
This is why dealers suck.

Great job!

Serial Thriller
Serial Thriller
1 year ago
Reply to  Jb996

Yeah, I was happy they quickly agreed to do the warranty work, but you know damn well they’re aware of the 10/150 terms and chose to keep quiet until David brought it up.
Also, “there’s another buyer interested” is the oldest trick in the book, and should have been a big red flag in my opinion.

Steven Radovanovich
Steven Radovanovich
1 year ago

This is the content I’d love to see! With this “new” battery technology it’s going to open up a new can of worms with the used market.

Jack Beckman
Jack Beckman
1 year ago

So you’re out your money potentially for months while a team that couldn’t provide a battery report unless begged (and then still couldn’t produce one like you asked) eventually works on it? Oy. Well, I hope it works out for you when you eventually get it.

Dennis Frederickson
Dennis Frederickson
1 year ago

While I acknowledge your due diligence in reading the fine print, you would have to be naive not to understand your celebrity status played a role in the dealer’s willingness to suddenly get religion and replace this part without fuss.
BMW corporate and their dealers also read automotive blogs.
They know who you are.

pliney the welder
pliney the welder
1 year ago

^ all of this , all day long. ^ well played ,Autombiliaobsessive .

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
1 year ago

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?

Stephanie
Stephanie
1 year ago

I am curious as to what is going to happen to people once they get out of warranty. Most of these batteries do have some type of shelf life. I wonder what the battery would’ve cost if he was completely out of warranty(mileage and years), so let’s say 12 years with 170K miles.
So does BMW just not offer warranties thay includes battery replacement on used vehicles? If so, I wonder what the stipulations are.
Wait…..so when the i3 was traded into BMW they didn’t run a battery test originally and or frequently?? Why didnt BMW perform a battery test PRIOR to putting the car on sale? Sounds like they were trying to sell you a lemon to begin with. That’s also false advertisement because any reasonable person would think that a reputable dealership would not advertise a vehicle online that is not a functioning the way that it was intended. BMW more than likely advertised the i3 as “good condition ” and not “poor condition”.

Serial Thriller
Serial Thriller
1 year ago
Reply to  Stephanie

Do you think they would have happily charged him for a battery replacement had David not done the legwork to find the warranty?

Boulevard_Yachtsman
Boulevard_Yachtsman
1 year ago

Congrats on the awesome new purchase! After the battery you should address the cosmetics. Have one of your graphically astute co-workers use any images of project POStal you have laying around to create the necessary imagery for a full custom wrap to be applied to this. It would certainly turn heads!

Ford_Timelord
Ford_Timelord
1 year ago

It needs a rust colour wrap to the underside to keep things familiar.

3laine
3laine
1 year ago

Glad to hear this worked out!

It’s been speculated/claimed for a long time on the i3 boards that the REx actually gets special warranty extension in some CARB states because of the generator, but I’ve never seen someone actually claim it and benefit from the REx-specific warranty!

Man With A Reliable Jeep
Man With A Reliable Jeep
1 year ago

Goes to show, always read the fine print. There’s gold buried in that legalese.

Lokki
Lokki
1 year ago

Wishing you the best on this – it seems like a perfect choice for the * New California David*. FWIW, I think that the battery replacement cost is covered by BMW USA, not the dealership. In my experience BMW dealers seem to do really good work when the company is paying for it. I think this is gonna work out nicely!

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
1 year ago
Reply to  Lokki

The move plus the i3 puts him two small steps toward becoming Larry David, not sure what the other ones would be, hating people would be one, I guess

Andy Individual
Andy Individual
1 year ago

I was fully expecting this story to end in a backyard lithium-iron oxide battery swap project.

DadBod
DadBod
1 year ago

Great article, this is why I bought a membership. Hope you don’t have to wait too long for the car.

86TVan
86TVan
1 year ago

That story was an emotional rollercoaster…fistpumped at the end

Andrew Bugenis
Andrew Bugenis
1 year ago

Damn, that dealer was jerking you around. Hooray for that CARB warranty though – and the dealer honoring it!

TheCrank
TheCrank
1 year ago

Nice catch on the warranty!

Btw, you need a haircut.

David Levine
David Levine
1 year ago

Damn you to hell! Now I have to dive deep into the abyss, looking for one too. It will look so great between my i4 M50 and my K1600GT. DAMN YOU….

David Levine
David Levine
1 year ago
Reply to  David Tracy

The M50 is really my wife’s. I have a Ford Exploder that I get with my work. I would love to have this for errands, and general stupid Holligan stuff.

GenericWhiteVan
GenericWhiteVan
1 year ago

When I was planning to get a ‘house’ battery for camper buildout of the GenericWhiteVan, I looked at building a LiFePO4 (Lithium Iron Phosphate) battery from scratch with individual cells and a BMS (Battery Monitor System). I found that all the hardcore DIYers use a similar process. They fully balance and charge the cells, and then they do a true load test down to whatever limit they are deciding to be ‘fully discharged’. As they discharge, they keep track of the load and time to arrive at kwHrs of capacity. This gives the true capacity of the battery under controlled conditions (so it is repeatable in the future to be able determine how much a battery pack has degraded).

I wonder if the car dealer does a similar test?

I ultimately decided to buy a prebuilt battery because of uncertainty of buying cells from Chinese vendors (some seem to be notorious for selling used cells as ‘new’ and they don’t meet the advertised capacity).

D.T.: You could really get some propellor head points if you come up with a way to do your own capacity test and monitor the battery degradation over time. I’m thinking that you could rig up a load using a 480V water heater element. The rough calculation: Heater element (6600W @ 480 VAC has resistance of 34.9 ohms ) Battery voltage = 360 VDC, so connecting the heater element to the battery, would draw 360/34.9 = 10.3 Amps ( or power of about 3.7 kw). Under these conditions, a load test would take about 10 hours to do an 80% depletion. Of course, safety would be paramount in setting up an at home battery capacity tester.

Japolkin
Japolkin
1 year ago

That’s more time being stuck in traffic than I’d care to experience

Fix It Again Tony
Fix It Again Tony
1 year ago

The engine is the APU which is covered for 15 years/150k?

90sBuicksAreUnderrated
90sBuicksAreUnderrated
1 year ago

This is the kind of “will they or won’t they” car content that I’m here for. Congratulations on the purchase, it sounds like an exceptional deal. You definitely deserve an automotive break and a comfortable daily after the past 7-8 years.

Boxing Pistons
Boxing Pistons
1 year ago

Your comment implies that David was somehow a victim. All of his trials with old shitheaps habe been very much self-inflicted. He even tried to screw himself over, here, but got off on a technicality!

i3 Driving Indicator Fetishist
i3 Driving Indicator Fetishist
1 year ago

David, download BimmerCode and order an OBD dongle and have fun coding it! A REx i3 becomes a very usable roadtripper and extra nerdy car when you can control the starting of the REx and code some extra capacity to your fuel tank. Plus all the fun things one can change on a BMW to really make it your own.

Robert Kirchner
Robert Kirchner
1 year ago

So David, how will you know when to sell it, since it’s never going to rust?

Ian McClure
Ian McClure
1 year ago

It’s David, it will develop rust anyway.

Frankencamry
Frankencamry
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian McClure

He’ll probably zip tie a couple of pieces of scrap jeep frame to the underside, then monitor their condition. If they rust through, time to sell.

Like sacrificial water heater anodes, only backwards.

RataTejas
RataTejas
1 year ago
Reply to  Frankencamry

BMW Tracy zincs.

Timothy Arnold
Timothy Arnold
1 year ago

I’m happy you got a positive outcome on this, David… the i3 is a cool little car, but can we please get something straight – this is a HYBRID electric. No one markets a hybrid electric as an electric car… you won’t have to deal with range anxiety the way most owners of full electric vehicles do. This is not a point of derision, I just wish you’d use accurate terminology. At least call it an electrified vehicle, which would be slightly better.

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
1 year ago
Reply to  Timothy Arnold

GM did, they pushed the Volt as an “EV” throughout it’s production run, you had to look past the marketing slogan to see that it was a PHEV

RataTejas
RataTejas
1 year ago
Reply to  Timothy Arnold

It’s not a hybrid though. It’s a battery electric vehicle with a range extender. The combustion engine only charges the battery. It provides nothing in terms of connection to the drivetrain. Basically you’re carrying an integrated generator.

If the battery is dead, you’re not moving. Unlike my Clarity, or a Prius or anything else, where there’s a mechanical connection from the engine to the drive train.

3laine
3laine
1 year ago
Reply to  RataTejas

It absolutely IS a hybrid, but I also think it’s fair to call it an “electric car” for some of the reasons you mentioned, and more.

Ok_Im_here
Ok_Im_here
1 year ago
Reply to  RataTejas

yea, agreed. Plus, the engine cannot keep the car going indefinitely… i.e. if the range extender is running the car will eventually stop with the battery drained. At some point the car will have to either be plugged in or sit stopped with the REX running to recharge the battery.

3laine
3laine
1 year ago
Reply to  Ok_Im_here

“Plus, the engine cannot keep the car going indefinitely”

Yeah, it can under many circumstances.

To keep the explanation simple, basically, as long as you keep it under 70mph, you could just keep running on low battery + range extender forever. That would be dumb, but yeah, it’s possible.

3laine
3laine
1 year ago
Reply to  Timothy Arnold

It definitely IS a hybrid, but it’s a pretty unique situation. The base i3 is all-electric, but with the OPTION to add this generator, which only sends power to the battery. It also will never turn on because you floor it or it’s too cold or any number of other reasons why almost every other hybrid, even PHEV, will turn on the engine. So, if you always keep the battery above ~6% in this thing, the engine will NEVER turn on.

Also, there’s no power gain or loss related to the generator. It’s full power whether it’s on or off.

So, yeah, it IS a hybrid, but it’s basically an electric car that you can drive as an all-electric car under all circumstances, unless you WANT the back-up generator to run, so I think it’s fair to call it an “electric car”. It’s much closer to that than it is to most hybrids or even PHEVs.

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