|Nissan's infamous Polar Bear commercial|
This has lead many pundits, especially the ones that lean to the right, to announce the electric car is a flop. "See" they say, "Nobody wants these plug in toys. The tree huggers were wrong!". However I believe you need to look into what is really going on here, rather then assume there isn't demand.
First, the current electric vehicle offerings aren't really that appealing. Other than the Tesla Model S which just launched recently, what EV out there would really get your adrenalin up? Let's look at what the list of electric vehicles currently available in the US:
|The Nissan Catfish|
The Ford Focus EV:
|Go to Ford's website to build your Focus. You are immediately shown that the gas Focus starts at $16,200 while the electric Focus starts at $39,200. The cars look the same and the electric one is $23,000 more! Is that how you sell electric cars?|
Ford just started selling the converted Focus three months ago and through August had only sold 167 of them. They haven't been available everywhere in the US though and that has restricted sales, but clearly there hasn't been much of a demand for them. The base MSRP is $39,200 which is part of the problem. It's over $10,000 more than a fully loaded Focus ST so even after the Federal tax credit it's still about $3,000 more and has less options included. The EPA range rating is 76 miles so it's slightly better than a LEAF, but it does have active thermal management so the battery should perform better in weather extremes and last longer. It can also charge at a respectable 6.6kW's. Overall it's not a bad package if 70 to 80 miles is enough for you, I think most believe it isn't. What is really disappointing is Ford is doing little to nothing to promote it. I have yet to see a commercial, or anything letting know the car even exists. A friend of mine went to a dealer in Clifton, NJ a couple months ago to inquire about it and they had no idea when they would get them or even IF they would get them. He was told he may have to order it sight unseen if he really wanted one because they probably wouldn't be stocking them. I later found out that Ford is now only selling them by order, so they will not be stocked at dealerships. Surprised they aren't selling? I'm not.
The Tesla Model S. The model S is a beast. It's fast, sexy, charges at a high rate, and has three available levels of range - all better than any other other pure EV available. The problem is, it's expensive and there are doubts that Tesla will have staying power to be around long enough to back their warranty and provide long term service. Even the least expensive Model S is $57,400, and for that you don't even get leather interior or navigation system. Add those options and it's about $65,000. I expect the 40kW S to be rated at about 130 miles of range when the official EPA rating comes out. The 60kWh option is $10,000 more and the 85kWh battery is $20,000 more. There is no mistake it's the best electric vehicle available today, but the price will keep it out of most people's garages. This is the first car Tesla has engineered and built completely in house and they have been struggling since the launch to get production numbers up. They are well behind where they had hoped to be at this point and are basically inspecting every car by hand thoroughly for fit and finish defects as they come off the assembly line. On one hand it's great to hear how meticulous they are being to make sure everything is perfect, but on the other hand they need to get orders filled and cars delivered ASAP. If they don't increase production from a couple cars a day to dozens of cars a day they are going to be in serious financial crunch soon. Tesla hasn't provided monthly sales figures like the major auto manufacturers have, but did say they had delivered only 255 cars through September 23rd. They currently have about 13,000 Model S reservations, so there has been a good demand for the car even though it is quite expensive and that's a ray of hope in the otherwise dismal EV sales figures. This is a great EV and will sell, the question is can Tesla build them fast enough and still maintain the top notch quality expected of cars in this price class? Time will tell.
|Yes, It's THIS ugly!|
|The aliens are coming for your Volt!|
Now that I'm getting warmed up it's time to start really getting critical. As bad as the marketing has been, the sales process is exponentially worse. I'm going to focus on Chevrolet, Ford and Nissan because I don't really have any first hand experience with Mitsubishi and Tesla has to offer good EV customer service because all they sell are electric cars so I assume they will- they can't steer you into a less expensive gas car they have sitting in their showroom. I have even visited a couple Chevy and Nissan dealers to see how customers seeking information on their plug-in offerings were treated and I didn't come away impressed.
Ford isn't even stocking the electric Ford Focus. You have to order one, sight unseen. I haven't been to a Ford dealer to inquire about the FFE, but as I mentioned above a friend of mine did and he was very disappointed in the experience. He certainly wasn't inspired to buy one. Ford is clearly making the FFE for CARB compliance, and is not really interested in selling many of them.
In the Nissan dealers I have visited weren't too bad. They really didn't highly recommend the LEAF, but they also didn't consciously try to steer me into a different vehicle, like I experienced in some Chevy dealerships. They were like "Sure, if it's a LEAF you want we'll be happy to service you." However the client advisers really didn't know much about the it and one even told me it would pretty much go 100 miles per charge regardless of the weather as long as I drove it properly, which it certainly not true. I challenge anyone to drive a LEAF 100 miles on a charge in New Jersey in January - it's not happening - I don't even think you can do 80. Some dealers have a LEAF or two which is good to see them there, but without a couple on hand with different options and colors to choose from it's really hard to say the car has a fair chance.
I have a real problem with what's going on in some Chevy dealerships. It really seems that there are a good number of dealerships that simply don't believe in the car and just don't want to sell them. Last year I convinced an acquaintance who happens to be the former Mayor of a local town, to check out the Volt. He went to a large local dealership and asked if he could see a Volt. He was abruptly greeted with "Why do you want to see one of them?" and then "Where do you plan to plug it in?" He was then shuffled over to look at a Chevy Cruze after he was told "It's basically the same car, except it's half the price and it gets nearly 40mpg" He wasn't even shown a Volt. When he stopped by the restaurant a few days later he said the salesman really discouraged him into looking further into the volt, and even told him he doesn't even know if they will continue making them! I was so pissed I went to the dealership a few days later to see how I would be treated. I had even thought about arming myself with a hidden camera to record how the Volt was being demonized from within but didn't want to get involved and any legal issue if I posted the video on YouTube. I don't know if I had the same salesman, but the approach was similar. I checked online before I went and the dealers website said they had two Volts in stock. When I got there I walked around and couldn't see any. Finally a salesman came outside to meet with me and when I asked if they had any Volts he said yes, he thinks they might have one. We walked inside to try to locate the Volt and he asked if I knew much about it and I responded "a little" but that I heard it's a good car and I like the idea of driving an electric car. He asked his manager and was told yes they do have two Volts, but they were "Out back, and blocked in by a few cars" and "If I really wanted to test drive it then it would take a little while to get them out." I said yes I wanted to and about ten minutes later they brought out a black Volt that had a nice film of dust on it. We got in to go and I noticed the battery was just about completely depleted and only had about 5 miles of range left. The salesman did the best he could to tell me about the car, but honestly he knew next to nothing. He didn't know the charge rate, he didn't know how big the battery was or what kind of batteries were used. I asked him if the batteries GM used had a problem with 'memory effect' and he stared back at me as if I gave him a tough physics equation to tackle. When the range extender came on I remarked that I heard it turn on and he said that was something else because you can't hear the engine. I have driven many volts, GM did do a good job to mute the engine noise, but you can hear it if you are paying attention. Once we got back at the dealership I was quickly shuffled to his desk and asked to fill out a form that included all my personal information. He didn't even offer to find answers to the questions he didn't know. I rejected the form and said I'd like to first talk price and availability. That's when it got interesting. I was told the Volts were selling at sticker price without the option to negotiate and that there were only a few in the area that they could trade for. However they did have other comparable models there that they could 'put me in' for much less and I could drive off the lot in it today. I thanked him for his time and left. I never imagined it would be so hard to buy a car. I visited two other Chevy dealerships to see how I was treated. One was very accommodating and seemed like they would definitely do what they could to get me the Volt I wanted. The other was close to the experience I described above. they had little interest in helping me, and basically told me a Cruze is a much better choice(not in so many words though). The real problem is I've heard about issues like this from quite a few others. There are some dealers selling a lot of Volts and really are enthusiastic about them, while others in the same area, with the same demographics sell little to none. Why is that? Is it all training? Does it go deeper? Is it a continuation of the political stance some people have on electric cars, that they are a bad idea forced down our throats by an administration that wants to tell you what is good for you? I'm not sure, but it does seem some dealerships are OK with allowing their client advisers to 'advise' their customers look at other models.
Here's an amazing story. Mike Kelly is a Republican Congressman in Pennsylvania. He also owns a Chevy dealership(that was handed to him by his father). He refuses to sell Volts. In fact he fired an employee that works for him because he ordered one from Chevy because he was told by GM that the dealership had to stock at least one Volt. When Mr Kelly found out that he ordered the car he fired him because he refuses to stock or sell Volts, even if a customer comes in and wants one! C'mon, how does Chevy expect sell Volts if this is going on? I am actually surprised the Volt is selling as well as it is since it's under constant assault from much of the media and even has to endure friendly fire from some Chevy dealers. Read about it here.
Alysha Webb recently wrote on Plugincars.com "Getting dealers on the Volt’s side is crucial. A recent report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace entitled “Policy Priorities for Advancing the U.S. Electric Vehicle Market” recommended using dealers as marketers and advocates to boost electric vehicle sales" There are a lot of very experienced electric car owners and advocates out there, how about enlisting some of us to be part of the solution? Whatever the formula, something need to be done to get the manufacturers, the marketing departments and the dealers on the same page and supporting their plug-in offerings. I haven't seen anybody even come close to doing it right so far. Will BMW? I don't really know. I'd like to think they are smart enough to see what has been going on and realize they need to do better. When they launch the i brand next year they have an opportunity to be the first major OEM to really do it right. They can seize the public's interest (there is interest in plug-in cars) in these cars, help the consumer understand the differences, the advantages and the shortcomings of these cars. The key is to have the information accessible, and have a sales force ready to respond to the challenges unique to living with a plug in car. Most people don't know what BEV, PHEV, PEV, EREV, REx and HEV even mean, let alone the differences, and that's just the start. Where can I plug in? How much does it cost in electricity? What do I do if I run out? How will the weather effect the range? Can I charge if it's raining? How about snowing? These are the simple questions that everybody asks and there are a lot more, but surprisingly even these softballs can't be properly answered by some Chevy and Nissan salesmen. Preparing the client advisers, giving them the tools to instill confidence in their clients is paramount. If the prospective customer isn't 100% sure their adviser knows what they are talking about and can help them with every issue they may face then they aren't going to feel comfortable buying a plug-in car. It takes a leap of faith to buy your first plug in car and the customer needs to be nurtured a bit so they feel they are making the right decision.
Still surprised plug in sales haven't lived up to the hype? I don't know why you would be. Somebody, at some point is going to figure this out. Hopefully sooner than later.