BMW i3 Great, Dealers Less So, Says Auto Express Magazine. Are Dealers Letting Electric Cars Down?

It’s a extremely well-built car, uses innovative engineering, is low cost and fun to drive, and its interior is suitably upmarket. It is also one of the most refined electric cars on the market today.

But while the BMW i3 REx range-extended electric car is the object of affection for Auto Express’ Mat Watson as the weekly British motoring magazine hands back its long-term loaner i3, there’s one tiny chink in the i3’s otherwise pristine gleam: its dealer network.

Mat Wilson's experience isn't unusual among Plug-in car owners

Mat Wilson’s experience isn’t unusual among Plug-in car owners

What’s more, it’s a problem that we’ve heard other plug-in drivers complain about — and it’s not confined to BMW’s cars. Indeed, we’ve heard about poor sales experience from Nissan dealers through to Chevy dealers. As most dealers become more aware of plug-in vehicles and warm their attitudes towards them, we wonder if service is now the biggest missing link in an otherwise pleasant plug-in experience — and if so, what can be done about it?

In Auto Express’ final review of life with the BMW i3 REx, Watson is overbrimming with enthusiasm for the plug-in car, calling it “my favourite car to feature on the Auto Express fleet,” and then adding that “it’s one of the best cars I’ve ever driven in my entire career as a motoring journalist.” Yet when the Auto Express BMW i3 needed some tender loving care at the hand of the local BMW dealership, Watson’s experience was the antithesis of his time with the innovative plug-in.

Like other automakers who produce both gasoline and electrified vehicles, not all dealers have the necessary trained staff and equipment to deal with BMW’s i3 and i8 plug-in models. Consequentially, when the BMW i3 REx showed a drivetrain problem warning light and advised a service centre check, Watson took the i3 to a dealer nearby to the Auto Express offices which was approved to working on BMW’s electric vehicles.

“I was confident I’d be in safe hands with Spire BMW Highway in north London, having been treated well by its sales outlet when I charged the car a few weeks earlier,” Watson recounts. “So I called the service department, explained the fault message on the display and was told it’d be able to deal with the problem.”

Since the repair happened to coincide with a two-week holiday, Watson dropped the car off at the dealer and headed off for a well-earned break, expecting the car to be fixed by his return.

During his vacation, Watson said he received an email from the dealer which said that it didn’t have the equipment to carry out the repair, but that it would transfer the car to another dealer for a fix. Upon returning home however, he found that the i3 hadn’t moved anywhere, and still wasn’t fixed. Moreover, the dealership hadn’t offered him a replacement car.

Limited approved service staff are letting down plug-in car service at many dealerships.

We'll admit we've had trouble with our Chevrolet Volt at the dealer for similar reasons.

We’ll admit we’ve had trouble with our Chevrolet Volt at the dealer for similar reasons.

“I was also upset [the dealer] hadn’t arranged for a courtesy car to keep me mobile until the i3 was fixed,” he wrote. “Instead, I had to beg for one, which turned out to be an entry-level MINI — and I was told I was ‘very lucky’ to get this, as there’s usually a waiting list for loan vehicles.”

When he finally got the the i3 back — one month after it had been dropped off — Watson said that his i3 hadn’t been cleaned or even fully charged. Moreover, the fuel tank was almost empty. When the car had been dropped off, the car was nearly full of both electricity and gasoline. The MINI he returned had three-quarters of a tank of gasoline in it, far more than the one-third it had when he picked it up.

“Only when I went to the top did I get a response, from an apologetic Spire MD,” Watson said of the dealership, who he had complained to twice without response to get a refund for the extra fuel in the MINI on drop-off. Explaining that the dealership had only been in new management for 12 months, the MD reiterated its plan to turn around service and sales to give exceptional customer service ‘at all levels.’

“Until that happens, it’s five stars for the car, but just one for the dealer,” he concluded.

We should point out at this juncture that we’re not singling out BMW here. Plenty of other electric automakers have their share of poor service reports from dealerships. It’s also worth acknowledging that as humans, we tend to be more vocal when things go wrong than we are when things go well.

But from our own experience, both with our current staff Chevrolet Volt — and our former Renault Twizy staff car — that when things go wrong with electric cars, long repair times are frustratingly common.

The challenge it seems, as highlighted by Watson’s article, is the number of trained staff and appropriate equipment on hand for the servicing of plug-in vehicles — and the matter of the costs associated with preparing a dealership to service plug-in vehicles.

Like any dealership wanting to sell a new model, each dealership must sell a minimum number of service staff (usually 2) to a special training course to receive certification to work on a plug-in vehicle. In addition to covering the health and safety basics of working with electric and hybrid propulsion systems, these courses cover the appropriate ways to diagnose and work on electric and plug-in hybrid cars. For many of the attendees, this will be the first time they’ve worked on an electrified vehicle before.

Want to know what your mechanic needs to know to work on a hybrid or electric car? Find out here.

As staff writer Kate Walton-Elliott discovered, training for hybrids and plug-in cars is available -- but costly.

As staff writer Kate Walton-Elliott discovered, training for hybrids and plug-in cars is available — but costly.

Like any dealer service training course, these courses are costly for the dealers — who usually have to pay for the training for their staff out of pocket. In addition, each dealer must invest heavily in new service and test equipment to ensure that their trained mechanics can safely service each car.

In our own experience, this confluence of a limited number of trained staff at each dealership with costly equipment means that it’s not unusual for plug-in car services to be held up as either staff or equipment becomes unavailable. On one occasion, the dealership we purchased our fleet Chevrolet Volt told us it could no-longer work on our car because its two trained ‘Volt’ mechanics had both left. On another, our staff Twizy was held up for a week because the nearest dealership authorised to work on our car was cleaning a backlog due to other local dealers failing their plug-in vehicle certifications.

The solution?

In some cases, we’d suggest that automakers need to work more closely with dealerships to ensure that a higher proportion of staff become trained on plug-in and electric vehicles, as well as assist dealers financially with the purchase of costly service equipment as required.

We’ve come on leaps and bounds when it comes to informing sales staff and car buyers about plug-in vehicles. But now the weakest link in many places is the service centre, where only a few service staff at each dealership can even work on many of the plug-in cars on the market today.

The contrast of course, is Tesla Motors — which only builds all-electric models and owns its own, fully-equipped service centres. There, every mechanic is trained to work on electric cars and as a consequence, delays caused by employee illness or machinery unavailability is unheard of.

For mainstream automakers to catch up with the rapid acceleration of Tesla Motor’s grasp on the plug-in marketplace, getting service right for customers is a essential. Sadly, too many dealerships and automakers haven’t realised that yet.

Do you agree? Have your dealership experiences thus far been positive or negative? Are there any dealers you’d like to highlight for either positive or negative after sales experiences?

Leave your tales in the Comments below.


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  • Disqus Tim

    When I test drove an i3 here on Long Island this past winter the first thing the “i3 expert” salesperson told me was that he didn’t care much for the i3, or for electric cars.
    Not exactly the best opening line for anyone trying to make a sale…

  • Yeah I would buy an i3 if they had a free supercharging infrastructure but they don’t. I will wait for the Tesla Model 3.

  • nath

    I wanna see the Tesla 3 first….

  • vdiv

    What can be done about it?

    Illumination and the resulting competition. Let us know which dealerships under-perform and which exceed expectations, which actively reject EVs and which promote them even beyond their own franchise (i.e by installing public charging stations, organizing events, etc for all plugins). The missing piece is that while publications compare cars ad nauseam, none of them compare the dealerships. The result is the vastly opposing user experience with exactly the same model.

    By the way, Tesla is not completely immuned from this. Various sales and service centers and even various employees provide various levels of service, but hopefully they are better incentivized to do great.

  • Robert Pollock

    When I finally found a dealer with a Chevy Spark EV almost two years ago, (we live in California) it was 50 miles away from our house in Palm Springs, but up in the ‘higher’ desert about 2500 feet, on the road to L.A. Never having driven an electric other than one short test drive, I gambled that the car would have maximum range coming downhill, and fully charged goes almost 100 miles on a flat run anyway. None the less, I asked the dealer to charge it fully. The previous week of negotiations with them, looking for a car, was right out of a cheap movie. They weren’t worried about details, they just knew they’d be rewarded for getting someone to sign a lease. They tried the ‘bate and switch’ lease arrangement, sending me a low resolution photograph of the lease I agreed to, and substituting another a few days later, but that all washed out anyway in the end. My concern was that the car have the “DC Fast charge” option, I’d investigated my options for months and had a good idea of what was going on. No one at the dealer had a clue what an electric car was. They couldn’t get the concept that it didn’t use petro products except for lubrication of a few bearings, and a 3.3 kw/hr charge controller, that should be a 6.6 kwh controller, was a foreign language.
    The sales manager emailed me that he worked Sundays and would be certain to put the car on charge before he left for the day, so I could pick it up fully charged the next day, Monday.
    In the darkness Monday at 5:00 pm, I pulled out of the lot with 71 miles showing, it should have read 81 to 90 or so if it was fully charged, but I just wanted out of there. Down hill is good, because 30 minutes later in Palm Springs, as I pulled into my driveway the car read 93 miles, it was now fully charged, it had charged itself with the excess electricity it produced coming down that 30 mile hill at 70 mph. (Cruise control)
    Over a year later, I was looking under the hood one day, (now and again to clean away the dust) and I noticed the large red plastic/rubbery boot that covers the AC Delco battery positive post was askew. No reason for that, probably a machine was the last thing that touched it, unless…..
    That’s right! The sales manager didn’t know about the 21 kw lithium ion battery. He’d charged up the wrong one.
    They’d insisted the car would have the DC Fast Charge and it didn’t, (which hasn’t proven to be much bother here in Palm Springs, where the city has dozens of free chargers) so I pulled back the $2000 deposit and kept it. Chevy wanted nothing to do with it.

  • Jobin Eram

    The dealer absolutely hate electric cars. There is ZERO, NIL, ZIP maintenance needed. Most of the parts of the car, unless damaged by a crash or misuse, will last the lifetime of the car. The only service for the i3 is break fluid change, wiper fluid change and replacement of the cabin filter. That’s it.

    Besides that the dealership model is as obsolete as a concierge in an elevator pushing the buttons for you… Tesla is once again showing the way bypassing those luddites.