Consumer Reports: Dealerships Don’t Understand, Like Electric Cars

Have you ever visited a car dealership with the intent of buying an electric car, only to find the last thing the salesperson wants to sell you is an electric car?

We’ve heard some pretty terrible horror stories over the years — and so too it appears had Consumer Reports. So much so in fact, the champion of consumer empowerment recently commissioned an undercover study into dealer attitudes, knowledge and competence in the world of electric cars.

As you might expect, Honda and Toyota dealers fare particularly badly

As you might expect, Honda and Toyota dealers fare particularly badly

The results make for some disturbing reading.

In its undercover study, 19 secret shoppers visited a total of 85 dealers across four different U.S. states between December 2013 and March 2014.

Their job: to find out how much each dealership knew about electric cars, the purchase incentives available, and the sort of costs associated with owning an maintaining them.

Asking a set of predetermined questions, the secret buyers tried to find out just how much each individual dealer knew about the plug in cars they were trying to sell. In addition, they tried to find out how many plug in cars had on their inventory.

While it was common to find a range of attitudes towards plug in cars in most dealerships with some individual salespeople more engaged in selling electric cars than others, Consumer Reports noted that there were clear trends among dealerships selling the same car.

For example, Chevrolet, Nissan and Ford dealerships tended to be far more likely to have well-trained, engaged sales people who were able to at least give a reasonable explanation of plug-in cars. Honda or Toyota dealerships meanwhile lagged behind, with staff more likely to actively discourage customers from buying a plug-in.

Chevrolet dealers were among the most clued-up on EV sales and incentives, says Consumer Reports

Chevrolet dealers were among the most clued-up on EV sales and incentives, says Consumer Reports

Yet no brand escaped completely. Of the 85 dealerships visited, an astonishing 35 of them had salespeople who recommended the shoppers buy a gasoline car instead of an electric car.  A further 13 discouraged car buyers from getting an EV at all, with seven of them being in New York.

Of course, the different circumstances explored by the Consumer Reports secret shoppers did cause some salespeople to err on the side of caution instead of seeing a customer get into a car they weren’t suited for.

For example, Consumer Reports cite one woman who said gave a commute distance the Nissan salesman felt would stretch the range of the all-electric LEAF. In that situation, he suggested she buy a Nissan SUV instead.

One particularly bad incident occured at Culver City Toyota in California, a state generally praised by Consumer Reports for having the most dealerships with well-informed, pro-EV staff and high levels of plug-in vehicles on the lot.

In the case in question, a salesperson told the Consumer Reports shopper that the Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid would require a battery replacement “every couple of years.” It’s not sure if he was referring to the car’s 12-volt accessory battery — a known weak spot for Toyota Prius hybrids — or if he was referring to the car’s lithium-ion battery pack. Let’s hope he meant the former and not the latter.

When it came to choice between cars, Consumer Reports said that only 15 of the 85 dealers surveyed had more than ten plug-in vehicles on the lot for customers to see and try. Most had one or two at best, with many dealerships making excuses as to the poor selection.

Thankfully of those with limited or no stock, most dealers — 21 in total — said that limited stock was due to ‘high demand.” Sadly however, the next most common answer was that there was a “lack of consumer interest,” in electric cars and “nobody buys them.”

Of course, not all car sales people are bad. Paul Scott is an example of someone who knows and loves EVs.

Of course, not all car sales people are bad. Paul Scott is an example of someone who knows and loves EVs.

While Consumer Reports was able to find some dealerships whose knowledge of electric vehicles was comprehensive, its sales people enthusiastic and the car selection large, the majority of dealerships in this survey appear to have at least some holes in their expertise, something both dealership owners and automakers need to address if they want to truly succeed in selling more electric cars.

As for those buying an EV? Our advice is simple: don’t rely on dealerships to give you information. Instead, use sites like Transport Evolved to find out the latest news, find a friendly local EV driver who is willing to help you buy your car, and make sure you’ve done your homework on both the car, its pricing, and its incentives before you walk into that dealership.

Does Consumer Reports’ investigation match your own experience? Do you have a horror story to share, or praise you’d like to give out to a particularly well-supported EV dealership?

Leave your tales and nominations in the Comments below.

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