Why Like Any Car, Buying An Alternative-Fuelled Car Needs a Clear Head, Honest Realism

They combine the zero-emissions capability of electric cars and the freedom of gasoline, but like the early days of electric cars, those who want to sit behind the wheel of the first limited-production hydrogen fuel cell cars on the market need to be committed, driven individuals who don’t mind travelling across town every time they need to refuel.

That’s the impression we get reading the experience of AOL contributor and journalist Michael Goldstein, who recently made the last-minute decision to turn down the chance of leasing a Hyundai Tucson hydrogen fuel cell SUV and then wrote about it.

Buying any form of alternative fuelled vehicle requires a level head and some common sense.

Buying any form of alternative fuelled vehicle requires a level head and some common sense.

Goldstein reports first seeing the Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell SUV back in November last year at the Los Angeles Auto Show. With a headline price of $2,999 down and $499 a month for three years, it came with an attractive free fuel for life and a promised range of 300 miles per fill.  With he and his wife having concerns about all-electric cars — namely the rather common if irrational worry that they would run out of charge on a hot day, miles from anywhere, not to mention fears about the standard of the electrical wiring in their house — they decided to give hydrogen a go instead.

Yet like many would-be early adopters of electric cars, doubt and a lack of knowledge crept in.

In his article, Goldstein tells how his family came to the slow realisation that filling the Hyundai FCV would be a task in itself. Unlike electric cars, where you can always plug-in to a standard domestic outlet for a top up, Goldstein worked out that the nearest hydrogen fuel station was thirteen miles from his home, necessitating a trip at least once a week to go and fuel up.  That, he explains, wasn’t the deal breaker. But when the Goldstein family dug deeper, they discovered only nine filling stations in the whole of California, only four of which were within thirty miles of their home. Moreover, the claimed range given by Hyundai was now 275 miles per fill, not 300.

Like the early days of modern electric cars, the fear of charger anxiety — or in this case fuel station anxiety — was big. When Goldstein found out that the headline $499 lease figure excluded local taxes and other costs associated with buying a car, he decided to walk away.

Goldstein’s story isn’t unusual to anyone who has worked in or followed the alternative fuel industry for any length of time. With the automotive industry so used to selling gasoline cars, new technology vehicles are often surrounded with a level of mystery and vagueness never before seen. And while the engineers who have designed the car may understand how it works, miscommunication and misunderstanding is present from the board-level management all the way down to the dealers and salespeople.

Large or small, be careful of the traps that await the love-struck Alt.fuel buyer.

Large or small, be careful of the traps that await the love-struck Alt.fuel buyer.

Without proper training of staff, mistakes are made. Things are missed, staff and customers become confused.

But blame is a two-way street. Experiences like these aren’t just the fault of those making and selling the cars. As car buyers, it’s all too easy to get trapped in the excitement bubble: a construct where the excitement of getting a new car — particularly when it’s a brand-new, alternative-fuel one — obviates any niggles or concerns the buyer may have.

In the worst-case scenarios we’ve heard of, buyers have blindly followed the advice of dealers, not bothering to check the information they’ve been given pertaining to range, fuelling costs or finance packages. While some dealers definitely do try to mislead customers, it’s also common to find car buyers confused or misinformed by their own lack of research.

To that end, we’d like to offer some pointers to help any prospective alternative fuelled — or future technology — car buyer understand the process of buying that care a little better.

  • Do your research first. There’s no substitute — or excuse — for  some hard buying research before you commit to buy. Try and listen to a broad range of opinions and views before you take the plunge. If your car needs special refuelling, be sure to research that, too.
  • Don’t be caught up in the whirlwind pleasure of the first test-drive or the comfy conversation at the dealership. Give yourself time before committing to buy, and use that time to be as objective as possible.
  • Double, triple, and quadruple your facts. Revisit conversations with the dealer to make sure what you heard first time stands true at subsequent hearings. If you’re confused, say so.
  • Be realistic, both of your actual needs and your perceived needs. They don’t always match, although one can often overrule the other. Know if you’re the kind of person who can deal with compromises or crises as they happen or if you need to have things just so. And don’t be afraid of admitting it.
  • Don’t be embarrassed to admit you’ve got concerns, be they small or large. Once you admit you have concerns, you can take time to ensure that your concerns are addressed, either through more research, more time, or more test-drives
  • Remember that buying a car isn’t just about the downpayment and monthly finance figures. You need to account for additional incidentals like purchase tax, licensing, and consumables in when figuring out your monthly transportation costings.
  • Take a friend! There’s nothing better than taking a friend along for a second opinion, as they can often give you the objectivity that you will need to make a good purchase decision.
  • Ensure all quotes are written down and any legalese explained. It makes it harder for dealerships to tack on additional fees later on if you’ve got everything written down.

As with any new, shiny car, it’s really easy to get caught up in the whirlwind love-affair that is buying a new alternative-fuelled car. But as with any large purchase decision, it’s important to make sure you’re an informed, smart, realistic buyer.


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