Is purchasing a used electric Smart car in the US an okay idea?
October 8, 2019 10:30 AM   Subscribe

We are considering purchasing a used electric Smart car for city driving over the next three or so years, as a supplement to an existing reliable vehicle with good cargo capacity. What should we watch out for? For example, should we be worried that parts and/or service are going to become much more expensive going forward? And, if we're looking to spend about a maximum of $8000, is it correct that we'd rather have a newer Smart car than an older, higher-mileage Leaf (for example)?

We'd been pretty sold on the idea of leasing one prior to realizing that that isn't actually possible any more. However, a few used 2016/2017 models are still available at dealerships near us for approximately the same "annual" price, if we can get at least three years of use out of one. We would be paying cash if we purchase.

Our main questions/concerns:
  • What should we be looking out for in a Carfax report or on a test-drive?
  • Is there anything that's likely to go terribly wrong with them between three and six years?
  • Are parts going to become impossible/extremely expensive to obtain just as we need them? Should we be worried that the local Smart Center at a Mercedes-Benz dealership will stop supporting them?
  • How far down could/should we try to push the price? We're seeing asking numbers around $8k, but of course don't want to leave money on the table. As I mentioned, we don't need this car and would be paying cash, which feels like should give us a decent amount of leverage despite the scarcity of the car.
  • Related: if we do this, we should just decline anything the dealership tries to tack on, right?
We started looking at these mostly because to get down to ~$8k in anything else, it seems like one needs to accept a significantly older model with higher mileage. One of us definitely doesn't want to sell our current SUV but does acknowledge that we could use it a lot less for things a tiny electric car would be entirely capable of, so this meant as a compromise on environmental impact and size/maneuverability for the city driving we do. "Just bike/bus more" is not an option due to health issues, unfortunately.
posted by teremala to Shopping (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Have you budgeted installation of your home charger (if that's your charging strategy) in that $8k? I don't have particular experience with the Smart, but when we installed our charger (and we did it ourselves) I think it ran about a grand. There are cheaper chargers now, and if you've got a dryer or hot tub circuit in the garage it may just be a few hundred bucks and a plug-in, but... you should work out your charging strategy.

And welcome to the electric car club. You'll loathe every drive afterwards where you have to use internal combustion.
posted by straw at 11:14 AM on October 8, 2019

Speaking as the owner of a used 2013 Leaf that I bought about a year ago (and someone who knows nothing about Smart cars but would not buy one because it looks they could be structurally compromised by a strongish sneeze), you need not be hung up on MILEAGE.

It can be hard to get out of the "mileage is everything" mindset, because most of us know only cars with internal combustion engines, for which, when buying used, mileage is THE key consideration. But mileage is much much less important for EVs. What matters above all is BATTERY HEALTH. How many ticks on the "master battery" gauge have been used up by the original owner? How well does the battery hold a charge? How quickly will it charge? How will you charge it at home/work/elsewhere?

I frickin' LOVE the Leaf, and it's a buyers' market for used ones at the moment.
posted by Dr. Wu at 12:06 PM on October 8, 2019 [3 favorites]

We have a non electric Smart and the closest place that will service it for anything more than an oil change is two hours away. It sounds like you have a Mercedes dealership nearby. But if you have concerns that they may no longer provide service down the road, I would seriously consider how far away the next dealership is from your current location. It is an huge hassle to figure out logistics for repairs, to the point that I would like to trade it in and get something different.
posted by JennyJupiter at 12:12 PM on October 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

Yeah I’d suggest looking at used Leafs instead. They’re a great value.
posted by spitbull at 12:20 PM on October 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

I'm a Leaf owner so I can only give you general electric car advice. If you consider it a win to get 3-6 years out of a used electric car, then you are in for a treat. There's basically no maintenance except making sure the brakes haven't worn out and keeping the wiper fluid full. Don't let the dealer sell you oil changes. :-D

The battery capacity will drain down over time. For my 2015 Leaf they only guarantee that you'll have more than 75% of the original capacity after 5 years. They make that guarantee because the batteries are going to last longer than that; my car hasn't lost any measurable capacity yet, and I charge it somewhere around every 1-3 days depending on how much I drive. Cooler climates are reportedly better for battery life.

As straw said, be sure you're comfortable with the range and charging time. I'm getting by with just trickle charging (using a 110v standard outlet, recovers about 5 miles per hour of charging) but there's a certain amount of planning ahead that's needed (and the occasional running out in my PJ's at 11PM to plug it in). I also rarely drive more than 30 miles in a day (I probably average 10), so even if my battery capacity drops to 50% it's still plenty of range for me.

I'd be most concerned about giving up the extra seating and cargo space, but it sounds like you already considered that and are looking forward to being able to parallel park where most couldn't even consider. Try to find a single-owner lease return if you can; leased cars are typically well-treated by their drivers.

(And I know you didn't ask this but to echo others above: It is so immensely satisfying to drive around in an electric car. I have never cared about my cars before but I absolutely love my Leaf!)
posted by rouftop at 12:23 PM on October 8, 2019

You should really consider a used Leaf. You can get one with less than 50,000 miles in your price range. You will find better prices and better selection because there are over 150,000 Leafs in the US. There are less than 10,000 electric Smart cars.

You can get service for a Leaf at any of over 1000 Nissan dealerships.
posted by JackFlash at 12:28 PM on October 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

One more thing... dealers don't care about cash. I got a better deal by accepting financing from the dealership and then sending the financing company my cash as soon as I had their address. But that trick only works in states that disallow prepayment penalties.
posted by rouftop at 12:33 PM on October 8, 2019 [9 favorites]

Have you driven the electric Smart? It's terrible. Dangerously slow.
posted by adamrice at 1:37 PM on October 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

Another Nissan Leaf owner chiming in here - they're awesome. For $10,000 we got one with under 25,000 miles. This was about two years ago. We now have it close to 40,000 miles and haven't noticed any battery degradation. We charge ours off of standard 110v household electricity, also. The conventional wisdom, as I understand it, is that charging slower with less current is better for batteries anyway. In cool weather, a full charge shows 90 miles of range. Using air conditioning (we live in the humid Southeastern US) does make the range go down some, but we manage just fine, as we live in the city. Good luck!
posted by Slothrop at 2:00 PM on October 8, 2019

Another recommendation to reconsider a used Leaf. And yeah, mileage doesn’t really matter -those motors will likely go a million miles — but do research on battery health (sometimes written as “SOH” for State of Health) because that’s what matters. And pay attention to how much estimated range the electric cars you look at have when fully charged.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 3:15 PM on October 8, 2019

My ex had a non-electric Smart car several years ago and the wheels were a pain in the ass. Any time he got a flat the entire wheel needed to be replaced. The wheels also cracked a few times when he hit a pot hole.

When we moved to an area without a dealership he had to sell it because it was impossible to get service.
posted by elvissa at 3:23 PM on October 8, 2019

Okay, okay, y'all are making a very solid case for the Leaf, even if it would need to be a 2012/2013 for that price. :) If that's what I end up with, clearly I'm going to need an "AskMe about my..." sticker for above the model name. I do really love the idea of turning/parking anywhere though: my sibling has had a Smart car for a couple years and still can't get over it.
posted by teremala at 4:18 PM on October 8, 2019

You could get a used Mitsubishi i-MiEV instead. Mine lets me park anywhere and it's heaps of fun to drive.
posted by some little punk in a rocket at 5:44 PM on October 8, 2019

I’m going on five years with my 2012 leaf that I bought used. Unless you need the shortness of the Smart for easy parking I also suggest the leaf—it was a multi billion dollar engineering effort on nissan’s part, a truly solid car, widely sold, widely supported, very reliable. That said, the leaf battery does in fact degrade. Mine is now a 45 mile car instead of a 75 mile car. More recent vintages are less bad. Other manufacturers use a liquid cooled battery, while Nissan cheaper out and went for air cooled, so the Leaf battery degradation is worse than it could be. Smart has liquid cooled. However, I don’t know that Smart was as thoroughly debugged and designed as the leaf was.

All that said—I was just looking at used electric Smarts myself. Parking is very tight around here, it could come in handy.
posted by joaofava at 7:02 PM on October 8, 2019

Can confirm - cash buyers are of no appeal to a dealer. They’re in the financing business. Cars are just a convenient excuse for usury and highway robbery of the poor and the financially illiterate. Cash buyers get treated like pariahs.
posted by spitbull at 7:29 PM on October 8, 2019

You’ll get over the Smart’s small size real fast when your have to drive one.
posted by spitbull at 7:31 PM on October 8, 2019

I drove an ICE Smart for a while when visiting Europe, and the thing I just couldn't get over was how piss-poor the turning circle was. For a tiny little car, it's astonishingly non-manoeuvrable. I suspect that this was done deliberately to stop it tumbling head-over-heels if anybody tries to do a swerve in it.

My own Daihatsu Mira is only 600mm (two feet) longer than a Smart (also 270mm narrower) and way easier to park because the steering actually does something.

The Leaf, for what it's worth, at 4485mm is 1785mm (nearly six feet) longer than a Smart.
posted by flabdablet at 1:08 AM on October 9, 2019

I LOVED my bought-used i-MiEV* - but as far as dealerships, service, and painfully expensive rare parts.... I ended up selling it for scrap** about 2 years after we got it, when it was about 5 years old and had less than 30K on it. The heater died, and it turned out the part that died would cost $4000 plus labor AND the car couldn't be driven until it was fixed (even tho it was summer) because it was tied into the drivetrain. This was after paying to have it towed to the nearest Mitsubishi dealership, which was IIRC about 60 miles away, and where they honestly didn't have any particular expertise with it either.

If I were getting another electric car (and someday I hope I will, I really did love the experience) I would get the most common model I could afford. So in your case, probably the Leaf.

* That car was tiny and adorable and fit just the right amount of stuff/people and had great headroom and was insanely fun and cheap to drive. Plus I could just plug it into a regular 110 outlet with what looked like the world's largest laptop cord. I felt like a little old lady from the future driving it, which is exactly what I loved about it. RIP the Bubble Car.

** I think we got $1000 for it; we still owed about $5-6k, IIRC, which thankfully a relative gifted us to pay off the loan.
posted by epersonae at 3:37 PM on October 9, 2019

Extremely useful information about used Nissan Leafs is here (scroll down).

I would discourage the Smart and get the Leaf.

Be aware that the range (distance you can go from one full overnight charge) of early Leafs can be as low as 40-50 miles. Winter is worse. But if just using it for trips around town at less than 30 miles a day, you are golden.
posted by intermod at 8:55 PM on October 9, 2019

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