Dealers not always thrilled about electric cars

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You might think that if you go to a car dealership that sold electric cars, a salesperson would want to sell you one. But that that’s true only some of the time, a months-long survey by Consumer Reports reveals. And that’s the case with some brands more than others. (Watch our video below on the issue surrounding Tesla and car dealers in numerous states.)

After several consumers who desired to buy a plug-in car reported to us that some dealerships were steering them toward gas-powered models, we decided to find out how salespeople answered their questions about electric cars and whether or not they were inspired to buy an EV or directed toward other models. In total, 19 secret shoppers went to 85 dealerships in four states, making their anonymous visits between December 2013 and March 2014.

We also had our shoppers record the amount of plug-in vehicles each dealership had in store and which models to view whether salespeople were just trying to sell anything they had located on the lot.

To gauge the salespeople’s knowledge about electric cars, our secret shoppers asked a number of specific questions on the vehicles. Questions covered tax breaks along with other incentives, vehicle charge time, cost, and options, vehicle range, and battery warranty and life. In addition they asked the salespeople whether they recommended buying or leasing.

We found out that whether salespeople encourage the sale of an electric car or discourage shoppers from purchasing one seems to have all the to do with their knowledge about plug-in cars similar to the number the dealership has in stock. And a few automakers seem to have better-trained sales people than others.

Find out more about electric hybrids and cars in your guide to alternative fuels and cars.

Chevrolet Volt

Overall, many dealership salespeople were much less knowledgeable about electric cars as you might expect. While we discovered several very knowledgeable salespeople at some dealerships, few provided accurate and specific answers about battery battery and life warranties. And many seemed not to have an effective understanding of electric-car tax breaks as well as other incentives or of charging needs and costs. Many also didn’t manage to recognize that for folks who intend to select an electric car, the reasons for leasing are broader than for ordinary cars, including that you don’t have to hold off until tax a chance to receive a generous tax incentive.

We also found a strong correlation between the salesperson’s knowledge about electric cars along with their propensity to encourage people to get them. If it came to answering basic questions, we found that salespeople at Chevrolet, Ford, and Nissan dealerships tended to become better informed than those at Toyota and Honda, with a notable distinction between Chevrolet and Toyota. This jibes in what we’ve located in talking to other representatives from these automakers. Ford, General Motors, and Nissan have made significant investments in plug-in vehicles, while they seem to be an afterthought in the Honda and Toyota lineups, and seem to lack corporate support. Rather than emphasize plug-Toyota, ins and Honda have been focusing their efforts on developing fuel-cell vehicles.

Toyota salespeople, especially, were more likely to discourage the sale of plug-in models and less likely to give accurate or specific solutions to basic questions about electric cars or to say they didn’t know.

For instance, when asked about the battery warranty and just how long the electric-car battery would last, one salesperson at Culver City Toyota in California said the Prius Plug-in required a battery replacement “every few years.” Perhaps they were discussing the car’s standard 12-volt starter battery, which our surveys have revealed require more frequent replacement than in other cars.

A sales manager at Manhattan Ford in New York City, the sole Ford dealership actually properties of the automaker, at first denied there was a Focus EV, and then said it couldn’t be leased. Both statements are incorrect.

When asked about a Prius Plug-in, a salesperson at Star Toyota Scion of Bayside, N.Y., would not even show our shopper the car, despite having one out of stock.

A lot of the Toyota dealerships we visited recommended against buying a Prius Plug-in and suggested investing in a standard Prius hybrid instead. That might be good advice: In your own tests, we found the Prius Plug-in offered a scant mileage edge over the standard Prius at a huge additional cost. The outcome were mixed and not significant., even though (We spoke to a couple of Toyota dealers about buying a RAV4 EV)

Unsurprising, our shoppers also judged dealers without having electric cars on the lot to have less knowledge of EVs than those with a greater selection.

Relatively few dealers had a large collection of plug-in cars. Most had only a few plug-in vehicles on hand. Only 15 of your 85 dealers we surveyed had a lot more than 10 vehicles on-hand. This severely limited the number of colors and trims available.

Salespeople who had few electrics to choose from generally fell into two opposite camps when asked why. The most common answers, given by 21 dealerships, were that the cars were very popular or out of stock. The next most typical answers were “lack of consumer interest” and “nobody buys them.” A middle camp stated it was because automakers don’t build lots of or that electric cars are new technology.

California dealers were likely to convey more cars around the lot than average, and New and Maryland York dealers had fewer. Honda dealers had fewer cars on the lot than other dealers.

Overall, our secret shoppers reported that only 13 dealers “discouraged sale of EV,” with seven of them being in New York. The majority of those stores had virtually no inventory. However, at 35 of the 85 dealerships they visited, our shoppers said salespeople recommended buying a gas-powered car instead. Besides the standard Prius, some of these cases sounded like reasonable advice. For example, one salesperson suggested a Nissan SUV instead of a Leaf when our shopper told him she had a commute that will stretch the Leaf’s range.

In the end, most salespeople seemed to have the consumer’s interest at heart, though a few were clearly not interested selling a plug-in car they knew little about. Still, even at the least knowledgeable dealership visited for this project, our secret shopper said they felt positive regarding the experience overall.

For that matter-do your homework and don’t count on the dealership for education about this intriguing technology if you’re purchasing a plug-in car-or any car. Instead, utilize the visit for hands-on experience necessary to make the most efficient buying decision.