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Used EV comparison test: Nissan Leaf vs Model S, Zoe, i3 and Twizy

Used EV comparison test: Nissan Leaf vs Model S, Zoe, i3 and Twizy

► Petrol queues the final straw? Go electric► Choice of sizes, shapes, prices► Getting easier to live with all the time

Remember the G-Wiz? Remember when shopping for an electric carinevitably led you to the milk-carton-on-wheels with the cartoon faceand 35-mile range? How things have changed.

Historians will say the revolution really began – very slowly – in2010, when Nissan unveiled its ground-breaking Leaf. Here was amainstream manufacturer launching a serious electric vehicle (EV) witheverything a British buyer needed: five doors, frumpy looks and claimedrange of 110 miles.

Which means (sound the fanfare!) the electric era is now firmly underway, and the secondhand market is flourishing. But as used EVs becomemore affordable, does that mean they're actually a good idea? What aboutthe batteries? What about the range? And are they all as much fun todrive as an electric toothbrush? On a freezing cold night in London, wesample five used EVs to find out.

The best-seller: Nissan Leaf

What is it?The Nissan Leaf was first unveiled in 2010. It went on sale in 2011 and it's been built in Sunderland since 2012.HistoryTheLeaf was launched with a 24kWh battery and a pale interior. In 2013 aheat pump was added as standard and the car got a darker interior.Battery was upgraded in 2016 to 30kWh. Early cars only had a paleinterior. The whole car was revised in 2018 with more conventionalstyling and a 40kWh battery pack, improving the range to around 160miles.How much?An early 11-plate starts around£7k, while a 2016-17 30kWh car with a 120-mile range is around£10k-£14k. A 40kWh new shape from 2018 will be £20k-£24k. There areplenty of used Leafs to choose from – thanks to it being such a bigseller – or a brand new Leaf will cost from £26k.What to look forLikethe Renault Zoe, the Leaf was available with a leased battery, whichobviously adds to the running costs. Each car comes with a coded SDmemory card which is very expensive to replace.

We must start, of course, with the bug-eyed Leaf, the best-selling EV of all time.

The example here has been loaned to us by EV Experts in Guildford,founded in 2017 by Martin Miller and business partner Estelle Symonds.It's a 2013 Launch Edition. Such an early example means a 24kWh battery,a 107bhp motor and forget that claimed 110-mile range: in the realworld, this Leaf would only do 80 when new; eight years later, it's morelike 70.

Plus, cars from the first two years of Leaf production weren't fittedwith a heat pump, the most efficient way of heating the cabin, sothey're extra sensitive to cold conditions. 'You can blast 10 miles ofrange just by turning on the 3kW bar heater,' Martin explains. 'But,' headds, 'the sub-£10k Leaf market is buoyant: there are lots of peoplewho'll pay £8k, because if your commute is only 15 miles a day, whynot?'

Sure enough, as we climb aboard to drive into central London, theindicated 69-mile range immediately drops as I turn on the heater. So Iturn it off again, and – shivering in the misted-up, ice-box interior –conclude these early EVs really are for guilt-ridden, lentil-eating,hairshirt types.

As we drive in, Martin explains how all the datafrom Tesla, Nissan and BMW suggests you lose around one to two per centof battery range per year; and it's time, not miles, that does thedamage, because the plastic polymers in the batteries decay. More miles,and lots of healthy charging, is actually good for a battery.'Low-mileage cars are something we steer clear of,' says Martin. 'Afour-year-old EV that's only got 1200 miles on the clock – we'd test thebattery before we'd buy.'

In such a topsy-turvy world, the Leaf is soothingly ordinary todrive. With no rattly diesel up front, it makes serene progress throughtown. The interior has wide armrests in the doors and a large centrebox, and in no time I find myself sitting back in the comfy armchair,elbows out, driving with my fingertips. No gears, no bother. It's not athrilling car to drive; that instant torque of EV legend is certainlythere, but only as a pleasant surge in traffic. Ultimately, this carfeels numb.

Still, I shouldn't be harsh: it's tax-free, fuel-free, Congestion Charge-free, right?

The bargain: Renault Zoe

What is it?After various Zoe concepts, theproduction car was unveiled in 2012, part of a three-pronged EV pushfrom Renault along with the electric Fluence saloon and Twizy. Zoedeliveries in the UK began in March 2013.HistoryEarlyZoes have a 22kWh battery. A bigger 41kWh battery was introduced in2016, called the ZE40. In 2018 the motor power was increased to 109bhp,and in 2019 the car was upgraded again with a 55kWh battery pack and a134bhp motor. New cars are sold with the battery, so no more leasing.How much?Pricingis all about that battery lease: if you have to take on a £49 monthlypayment, prices start at £6k-£7k; add £5k for a 'battery owned' example.The latest Zoe, brand new, is priced from £27,595.What to look forFrontsuspension is a weakness. Renault recommends you don't jack the car upto change a wheel, so tyre condition is a factor. The tailgate is knownto squeak.

We arrive in London to meet the rest of the CAR team and I jump intothe Renault Zoe. This 16-plate car was run by our own Steve Moody as aCAR long-term test car back in 2016 and he liked it so much he ended upbuying it. It has a 22kWh battery and 65KW (87bhp) motor and, accordingto Steve, a range of around 80 miles.

Climbing in, it's another conventional interior but it does drivewith a bit more va-voom than the Leaf. The steering feels alive and itcorners with a flat confidence, thanks to the battery in the floor.Unfortunately, like the Leaf, it's heavy – roughly 200kg more than aClio – which dulls that torquey EV acceleration.

There are complications to buying a used Zoe too. When it waslaunched in 2012, Renault was convinced battery degradation would be anobstacle to customers, so it offered a battery lease: 45 per cent ofowners bought Zoes outright, 55 per cent leased the battery, payingRenault a monthly fee. If you buy a secondhand battery-lease Zoe, youtake over the payments. Early 22kWh cars cost between £49 a month for upto 4500 miles a year and £99 per month for 12,000 miles (later 40kWhcars are £10 more).

This lease agreement wasn't popular when the car was new and it'seven less so in the used market, especially as the batteries have provedto be strong. Renault finally dropped the lease model in February 2020,and it's now allowing owners to buy out old leases, based on a 10 percent reduction in value per year. Renault prices the Zoe battery at€7000 plus VAT, so a four-year-old battery like this one will costaround £5000 to own outright – a chunk of wedge on top of the carpurchase price.

Used EV comparison test: Nissan Leaf vs Model S, Zoe, i3 and Twizy

Not only that, Zoes are renowned for being tricky to charge. Martinsays: 'When you plug in any EV, it does a check before it starts takingon charge, to make sure that everything's grounded. Zoes need moreground than other EVs. So, for example, the Waitrose in Guildford hasfour charging points, but a Zoe won't charge on the fourth one – a Leafor BMW will, but a Zoe will not.'

I asked Renault about this, and it replied, 'All reputable chargingpoint installers provide adequate earthing for charging units, so it'slikely that if anyone had an issue it would relate to their specifichome wiring situation'. But Steve agrees with Martin: 'It's definitelyan issue.'

The oddball: Renault Twizy

What is it?Launched in 2011, the Twizy isclassed as a quadricycle, not a car. It seats two, the passenger behindthe driver, but a Cargo version is also available (the rear seatreplaced with a lockable box). Until recently, every Twizy wasbattery-leased, but old leases can now be bought out.HistoryAllBritish Twizys have a 6.1kWh battery located underneath the front seatand a 17bhp motor. France got a less powerful 5bhp version, the Twizy45: interestingly, when the UK harmonised its driver licensing laws withthe EU in 2013, it meant British 16-year-olds could legally drive a'light quadricycle' – ie an imported French Twizy 45.How much?High-mileage battery-lease cars start around £6k; a brand new Twizy is £12k.What to look forWithsimple mechanics and a sparse interior, very little goes wrong with theTwizy. Look out for extras like alloy wheels and Bluetooth audio.

If Martin is wary of trading Zoes, he's never touched a Twizy: evenin the world of EVs, this is an oddball. Our example is a 67-plate butTwizy spec hasn't changed since launch in 2011. Twizys come with a tiny6kWh battery under the front seat, and all Twizy batteries are leased(though like the Zoe, 2020-on cars are now sold 'battery owned' and usedTwizy customers can buy out their leases). The Twizy's three-pin-plugcharging cable is built into the nose, so no rapid charging; but thesmall battery means recharging from empty takes about three hours.Expect to get 35-40 miles out of that.

In France, Renault offered aTwizy 45 (5bhp, 45km/h top speed) but the UK only got the Twizy 80(17bhp and 80km/h – 50mph – top speed). To date, Renault UK has soldmore than 600, 90 per cent of which have the scissor doors. Bear inmind, the doors cannot be retro-fitted.

Tonight, in the cold, I should be grateful for our car's doors, withtheir zipped plastic windows, but the narrow cabin feels claustrophobic.The Twizy is only pointy-elbow wide and I soon stop to remove thewindows so I don't feel like I'm trapped in a pushchair under araincover.

After the Zoe, the Twizy interior feels cheap: it's a world of hardplastics; and when you get going, it sounds like a milk-float, with aloud 'Vvvwwuupppp!' motor noise. Yet, despite these shortcomings, it ishard not to love. It's so different from a regular car, so nippy andfun. The steering isn't as direct as you'd hope but it still feels likeyou can dart through junctions and slice into traffic. It seems daringand illegal to drive, like you're joyriding a shopping trolley.

And the Twizy does seem to be reliable. You won't see many outside ofcity centres – the only place where they really make sense – but ownersdo tell you that they're not just fun but trusty too. They're stillavailable new, priced from around £12k, or buy a used one for half that,look after it, and you can expect it to have kept its value after acouple of years of use.

The classy choice: BMW i3

What is it?BMW's 'i' sub-brand was launched in 2011 with the carbon i3 and mid-engined i8 supercar. The production i3 arrived in 2013.HistoryThei3 was launched with two drivetrains: a full battery EV (BEV) with a22kWh battery, or a battery plus a 650cc scooter engine acting as arange-extending generator (REX). In 2016 the battery grew to 33kWh,offering a 120-mile range. In 2019 the battery grew to 42kWh, boostingrange to 160 miles. A more powerful, 182bhp S version was launched andthe REX was dropped.How much?22kWh with rapidcharging from about £14k; up to £18k for the 22kWh REX. A 33kWh BEVstarts at £16k, REX from £18k; and the latest 42kWh starts at £25k onthe used market; a new i3 will cost you £34k.What to look forVery few issues: spec varies a lot, bodywork is expensive to fix, REX fuel pressure sensors are prone to fail.

After all these Nissan-Renaults, the BMW i3 is a revelation – as itwas when it was launched. Now eight years old, it still feels like thefuture: made from carbon with 'suicide' rear doors and skinny, 19-inchwheels, its proportions are unlike anything else. Inside, the dashboardhas a futuristic vibe too, with thin, shapely seats and an open,minimalist dash. It's like climbing into a concept car.

This example is an early 64-plate with 40,000 miles. Annoyingly, BMWdescribes its batteries in amp-hours rather than the conventionalkilowatt-hours – probably because, at launch, the i3's 22kWh batterysounded smaller than the Leaf's 24kWh, so they called it a '60Ah'instead. The i3's light weight and regenerative braking gave it asimilar range to the Leaf anyway, of around 80 miles.

Ah yes, the regenerative braking. Not only does the i3 lookdifferent, it's a singular driving experience too. With its rear-driveand narrow tyres, the steering is razor sharp – I mean, so pointy itfeels hyper-nervy at first. Also, the regen braking effect is calibratedto increase over the last few millimetres of throttle travel – in otherwords, coming off the accelerator is like pressing on the brakes. Atfirst it makes for a jumpy drive but it's amazing how quickly you getused to it. With a bit of anticipation at traffic lights, I'm soondriving with just one pedal.

I absolutely love the i3. The visibility over that low dashboard, thebuild quality, the laser-precise dynamics – it's the first car tonightthat makes me want to sign up to the revolution right away.

Sadly, it's not that easy, because used i3s are expensive. 'In thefirst two years of production, rapid charging was an option, and carswithout this are a lot less,' Martin explains. 'Cars like this, a 60Ah[22kWh] with rapid charging, are more like £14k-£15k; but, as with everyBMW, it's all about the spec.'

This is surely the flaw in EV economics: they work best as a secondcar, the short-haul, school-run shopper; but why spend £20k on a carthat does 12 miles a day, when you could buy a 1.2 Volkswagen Polo forunder £10k?

The fast one: Tesla Model S

What is it?Weird to think that the first Teslawas the Elise-based Roadster back in 2008. The car that moved thecompany from irrelevant to revolutionary was the Model S, unveiled in2009 and on sale (with RHD) in the UK in 2014.HistoryTeslabattery packs have grown from 60kWh to 70, 75, 85, 90 and on to 100kWh(2016); in 2014 the all-wheel Dual Drive option was added, designated bya D badge. A Ludicrous Mode option was made available in 2015 and madeavailable as a retrofit upgrade in 2016. The car also underwent a mildfacelift in 2016, adding adaptive LED headlights and changing the blacknose to a body-coloured 'facia'. All Teslas continue to evolve, oftenwith little fanfare, so check carefully the spec of any particular modelon offer.How much?An early 60kWh car starts ataround £25k, growing to £50k-£60k for a free-Supercharging 90D, andhitting six figures for low-mile, high-performance variants. Bear inmind that new prices for the Model S start at £74k.What to look forFree,transferrable Supercharging has been offered and removed over theyears, so check the status of individual cars. Screens go yellow andTesla won't replace under warranty.

Tesla is the brand that's shown there is an appetite for expensiveEVs, if they come with the right technology, performance andinfrastructure.

Our example is a 2015 Model S P90D, which means a90kWh battery, all-wheel-drive and 532bhp. Despite being a clean-sheetdesign with a 'skateboard' chassis, the Model S has conventional stylingand apart from the giant touchscreen a surprisingly ordinary interiortoo. It feels big, bloated and American.

Despite this, the Tesla has a trick up its sleeve: it'll drag-stripaway from a traffic light like a rocket. It is unbelievably fast. Intown it has a fussy ride and a lazy steering feel but that potentialunder your right foot makes it an exciting drive.

But as I say, owning a Model S is about more than the warp-speedperformance, it's also about infrastructure : Tesla's bespoke chargingnetwork now has more than 70 locations and more than 600 Superchargersthan can deliver a peak charge rate of up to 250kW – a huge advantageover the usual 50kW rapid charging (though older Teslas like this canonly charge at a peak 120kW rate).

Energy pricing is a big factor in buying a used Tesla, withelectricity charged at a competitive rate, but before January 2017 carswere sold with a lifetime of transferable free Supercharging. Factor inthe upgrades that Tesla has rolled out over the years, and you've got aclass of highly sought-after 'unicorn' cars; sold after August 2016 (sothey have the 'Autopilot 2' Hardware allowing Enhanced Autopilot), butbefore January 2017, benefiting from that free Supercharging.

Even apart from these gems, used Model S prices are strong, with50,000-mile, free-Supercharging P90Ds going for £40k-£50k. It helps thatTeslas have proved to be so robust, with US rental companies likeTesloop stretching Model Ss up to 300,000 miles. Battery degradationisn't an issue and – apart from a problem with yellowing touchscreens –even the interiors are proving reasonably tough.

So, should you?

This brief dive into used EVs hasn't raised any real horror stories. Iapproached this group feeling quite sceptical, but was actually prettyimpressed. Only those steep secondhand prices stand in the way –otherwise I'd be driving a BMW i3 next week.

I admit, I'm surprised – I'd heard anecdotes about cars refusing tocharge and dead electronics, but talking to owners and dealers likeMartin, no one sounded any alarms. More than a decade into our greatautomotive experiment, the batteries are lasting well, and the improvinginfrastructure is making EVs easier to own and run.