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Is Buying a Used BMW i3 a Good or Bad Idea?

So you’re thinking of going all electric… me too

With the prices of used BMW i3 EV and used Nissan Leaf EV vehicles coming down rapidly these days, the thought of buying my first new (used) electric car is making more sense now than ever before. Leasing a new electric car is typically advised over buying a new one due to the huge depreciation hit these cars suffer from in their first 5 years.

However, buying an older used electric car outright is more appealing for several reasons: no monthly car payment, no need for expensive full insurance coverage, no hidden fees or wear fees when returning the lease car. In addition, many enthusiasts just prefer to actually own vs. feeling like you’re renting.

The most important considerations when buying an electric vehicle are the range capability and current battery condition. How well will a particular car’s electric range fit into your daily needs such as commuting to work, family trips, shopping trips. I have found that it is common for EV owners to share an i3 for commutes and short trips around town, shopping, weekend errands – but they still keep a gas powered BMW or other SUV for longer family road trips and hauling.

In reality, it isn’t yet practical in 2020 for most of us to own just one EV and get out of gasoline and oil all together, no matter how much we might want to. Before this year, renting a car for long trips or work may have made it easier to ditch our backup gasoline car. The COVID 19 crisis has put enormous pressure on ride share services like Uber and Lyft, along with other car rental services. Few people today want to share or rent for fear of health risks it now poses. The pandemic has also caused a surge in car ownership even in unlikely places like New York City.

Saying Goodbye to Gas and Oil Forever?

My current daily driver is not exactly a daily driver. You see, since 2010 I have been self-employed and working from home. Ironically, as a car enthusiast, I don’t actually need to own a car nor do I drive all that much. My trips are largely to the grocery stores which are a mere 1 to 2 miles from home. Other trip locations include the post office, UPS, or down to the beach several miles. The car I use for these simple pleasures is a 2007 335i, a car I have long lusted after since seeing one at Bavarian Autosport Show and Shine car show in the Fall of 2006. Thirteen years of depreciation later, and I could finally afford one: Click here to see a video of my car.

My 2007 335i

This twin-turbocharged E90 with 6 cylinder gas engine is such a blast to drive, with approximately 340 horsepower thanks to a modest ECU tune. It is arguably the most fun car I have ever owned and I would really hesitate to part with it. This would be a good car to garage and use strictly for pleasure or those longer road trips as a back up to the EV. I purchased it from the original owner who took incredibly detailed care of the car, with a huge stack of BMW dealer-only service records. Usually these cars are found neglected and modified by young owners with a need for speed.

My other car is a classic 1984 533i E28 which I purchased over two years ago. It’s possibly the car I’ve owned the longest in recent memory, since I typically catch and release these cars just to produce content on YouTube. This car has been driven maybe 6-700 miles in the two years I have owned it; it is now so valuable that I don’t like to leave it out in random parking lots. It is not the most practical car to own at the moment, so I do consider selling it – though I may regret it.

My 1984 533i

My 533i was purchased in July 2018 from Portland, Oregon from the long time second owner. Now in his 70’s, the second owner Mike cared for the car since July 1987. With E28 prices on the rise in the last few years, it is tempting to sell it and make back a little money to fund life’s other ventures. Though if I do this, I may not be able to afford to buy one this clean again in the future.

All of this being said, I have been thinking about giving up gas and oil for years. The amount of maintenance, repairs, time, money, oil changes, gas fill ups and combustion related issues is just stupid. It doesn’t make a lot of sense. As an enthusiast, I enjoy bringing old cars back to life with servicing, though I recognize how bad their existence is for the air quality and world health. Not to mention, I would love to never leak oil and fluids on my new driveway or street again.

Buying a used i3 BMW BEV vs. Range Extender

My first choice of electric car would probably be an all-electric BEV i3. The range extender would offer peace of mind sure, but they are known to be more troublesome. Besides, this small onboard motorcycle engine generator would require combustion servicing like tune ups, gas fill ups and oil changes, defeating the purpose of owning an EV for me personally. The upside is that the range extender greatly extends the usability of the car, and eliminates the anxiety of running out of power while my wife takes it to work.

My 2002 530i next to an i3 REX

The first year 2014-2015 i3 BEV can be found from $10,000 to $13,000 at the low end which is an incredible bargain considering the technology and build of these cars. Since this is a BMW focused blog, continuing with the BMW brand would work for my interests as well as my viewers.

What’s most impressive is the carbon neutral conditions they were produced under in Germany and the fact that the car’s frame is made entirely of carbon fiber. The only other cars with carbon fiber bodies on planet earth are million dollar super cars. Very cool. Here’s a photo of the production in Leipzig in July 2013 from BMW’s press kit i3 photos.

The i3 carbon fiber body at BMW’s Leipzig Production Plant

The i3 features active cooling for the battery which is essential to longer battery life. The Nissan leaf does not have thermal battery management. The only major downside of this car is the narrow, expensive tires which produce a bouncy ride. I do wish it featured a taller tire for a more comfortable ride. The initial purchase price of the i3 is also nearly twice that of the Nissan leaf, which can be found from $5,000 to $7,000 at the low end.

Is the first generation Nissan Leaf a better option?

While I am obviously a huge BMW enthusiast, I do enjoy many other auto makes. Specifically, Japanese autos. Japanese culture is a big part of my life and I have traveled Asia pretty extensively, including across Japan. This leads me to the Nissan Leaf.

The early leaf suffered from a poorly managed battery cooling system – it did not have thermal management for the battery packs. In 2015 I believe the battery chemistry was improved so it is now advised to choose a 2015+ for best range performance. The 2013 models also feature an efficient heat pump HVAC system which improves range, which is essential in New England winters. The initial 2011-2012 models featured an energy sucking heater setup.

One other interesting point to mention is the early model 2011-2012 are made in Japan (not the USA) and also feature aluminum body parts to reduce weight. This is really cool and obviously very expensive to manufacture. The early ’11 and ’12 models are known for very high build quality, and aluminum panels are very high-end. To cut costs, the 2013+ models featured regular steel body parts. Not cool Nissan, not cool.

Conclusions

As we roll through 2020 there are so many new electric options coming out, most notably is Volkswagen’s iD4 which looks amazing. It has the option for an AWD dual motor car and features enough battery for 250+ miles of range which is more than enough for most driver’s needs. My hope is that as the next generation of EV’s become available in 2020-2021, the first generation i3 will come down in price a bit more. For now, the leaf looks like a better buy at half the price, though I would prefer the BMW.

Which EV would you choose? The i3 or Leaf?

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