Dealers not always plugged in about electric cars, Consumer Reports’ study reveals
Six burning questions about electric cars
You would think that if you were to 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 a number of states.)
After several consumers who wanted to buy a plug-in car reported to us that some dealerships were steering them toward gas-powered models, we decided to see how salespeople answered their questions about electric cars and whether they were encouraged 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 number of plug-in vehicles each dealership had in stock and which models to see whether salespeople were just trying to sell what they had available on the lot.
To gauge the salespeople’s knowledge about electric cars, our secret shoppers asked a number of specific questions about the vehicles. Questions covered tax breaks and other incentives, vehicle charge time, cost, and options, vehicle range, and battery life and warranty. They also asked the salespeople whether they recommended buying or leasing.
We found that whether salespeople encourage the sale of an electric car or discourage shoppers from buying one seems to have as much to do with their knowledge about plug-in cars as with the number the dealership has in stock. And some automakers seem to have better-trained sales staff than others.
Learn more about electric cars and hybrids in our guide to alternative fuels and cars.
Overall, many dealership salespeople were not as 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 life and battery warranties. And many seemed not to have a good understanding of electric-car tax breaks and other incentives or of charging needs and costs. Many also didn’t seem to recognize that for people who intend to go with an electric car, the reasons for leasing are broader than for ordinary cars, including that you don’t have to wait until tax time to receive a generous tax incentive.
We also found a strong correlation between the salesperson’s knowledge about electric cars and their propensity to encourage people to buy them. When it came to answering basic questions, we found that salespeople at Chevrolet, Ford, and Nissan dealerships tended to be better informed than those at Honda and Toyota, with a notable distinction between Chevrolet and Toyota. This jibes with what we’ve found 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-ins, Honda and Toyota 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 answers to basic questions about electric cars or to say they didn’t know.