When you write about cars, you can expect people to ask for your advice on which car they should buy. But when the question is actually “which used car should I buy,” many of us go quiet; driving an ever-rotating string of low-mileage new models leaves you unprepared to comment on long-term reliability or the like. Last week, a friend posed an even harder variant, asking for suggestions for a used plug-in electric vehicle. And my default suggestion of a sub-$20,000 BMW i3 wasn’t going to cut it.
As luck would have it, I noticed that Kelley Blue Book—which does keep track of things like long-term reliability and depreciation—just published a list of its best affordable used hybrids and EVs for 2021, with top-10 lists for cars that cost less than $15,000 as well as those under $20,000.
As you might expect at those price points, the lists are dominated by parallel hybrids like the Toyota Prius. No Teslas, I’m afraid—the cheapest used Model 3 that shows up in a brief search this morning still costs $28,000, and the rest all had prices that started with a three. But some battery EVs do make the KBB’s top-10 list.
The 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV made the list, although KBB may not still feel this way now that Chevy is in the midst of a second recall to fix a problem with battery fires. Should the automaker start buying back the affected cars, it may well resell them after the fix, as Volkswagen did with cars recalled due to illegal diesel emissions. That could mean a lot of Bolt EVs out there for BEV buyers looking for a bargain.
The other $20,000 used BEV on KBB’s list is the 2018 Nissan Leaf. Nissan’s second-generation BEV was a much cheaper car than the Bolt EV and consequently has less power and a shorter range. It also has passive cooling for the batteries, which means that pack longevity is more of a concern than with other BEVs. And DC fast charging, if equipped, will require a CHAdeMO connector, which has become the losing fast-charging plug. (Every new EV on the market that isn’t a Tesla uses CCS in the US.)
Despite the chip shortage and the huge increase in used car prices over the past year, a quick search on Autotrader shows plenty of examples of both BEVs at or around $20,000. But there are some alternatives. If you don’t need transcontinental range, the BMW i3 remains my go-to. Nothing else anywhere near this price point comes with a carbon-fiber passenger cell, and the i3’s interior remains one of the best designs of the last decade. It feels fun to drive in the way that the best BMWs always have, and it has suicide doors.
If you needed something even smaller with even less range between charges, you can find a bunch of 2018 Smart Fortwo EVs. I haven’t driven an electric Smart, but by the second generation, Daimler had fixed most of the flaws of the first version (like that horrifically slow transmission), and the EV powertrain ought to be an improvement still. If the idea of a familiar-looking car with an EV powertrain is appealing, but the diminutive Smart is not, you will find Mercedes-Benz B-Class EVs and Volkswagen e-Golfs here, too.
Second-generation Chevrolet Volts are also relatively plentiful at this price point. A handful of people will be turned off by the fact that its powertrain is more efficient driving the front wheels directly at highway speeds, and for others the two-seat rear might be too small. But for everyone else, it’s a very efficient (mostly) series hybrid with a big enough battery to cope with daily commutes.
Only two plug-ins make KBB’s list of sub-$15,000 used EVs and hybrids. One is the first-gen Nissan Leaf, which was replaced for model year 2018 by the version referred to earlier. The lack of active thermal management means that battery degradation is an issue with these Leafs, and the car’s 107-mile range was never massive to begin with.
The other plug-in to make the cut was the first-generation Chevrolet Volt. It has a shorter range on batteries alone than the car that replaced it, but it drives well and still has a big enough battery to avoid using the internal combustion engine on the vast majority of trips.
Again, there are alternatives at this price point as well. Yes, BMW i3s can be had for about $15,000, and all the things I already said about it apply. There are still Smart Fortwo EVs in this price band and the occasional Kia Soul EV, as well as other compliance cars like the Ford Focus Electric or Toyota RAV4 EV on Autotrader.
But electric motoring needn’t even be this expensive. A budget of $10,000 or less might not get you more than 100 miles of range, but there are plenty of older Nissan Leafs for sale with four-figure price tags, as well as compliance cars like the aforementioned Ford or the Fiat 500e. Even half this sum will buy you a BEV, although it might mean settling for a Mitsubishi i-MiEV.