Survey: Dealers Lack Knowledge and are Reluctant to Sell EV Cars

Elon Musk has maintained for the longest time that dealerships will sway people away from EVs and into gas cars. He says, "...auto dealers have a fundamental conflict of interest between promoting gasoline cars, which constitute virtually all of their revenue, and electric cars, which constitute virtually none."

This is part of his reasoning why Telsa does not want to franchise through traditional dealerships. Personally, I always thought this logic was incomplete and I still believe that the Model S is such a desirable car that it would override, any resistance from sales-staff.

Perhaps Elon is right. Recently, Consumer Reports conducted a survey about how dealers handle EV sales. CR used a number of secret shoppers who were actively in the market for an EV/Plug-in model. These shoppers asked very specific questions covering the following topics: "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."

Here are some highlights:

-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.

-A sales manager at Manhattan Ford in New York City, the only Ford dealership actually owned by 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 in stock.

-Overall, our secret shoppers reported that only 13 dealers "discouraged sale of EV," with seven of them being in New York. Most of those stores had little to 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, a few of these cases seemed 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 would stretch the Leaf's range.

Lack of product knowledge, on the part of sales staff, is nothing new. Most of us have rolled into a showroom only to know way more about a car than the person selling it. But if EVs are really the future, CR's findings have two very important implications both for car-buyers and manufacturers. If shoppers really want to purchase an EV, they need to advocate for their purchase much harder than gas powered car-buyer would. This also means that car-makers who are spending serious money to develop EVs for public sale need to be more involved in the dealer training so that these cars can get fair exposure.

Update: Just had a Twitter conversation with a Porsche dealer who proudly displays their Panamera-S Hybrid. I'm curious how the EV knowledge/promotion changes at luxury car dealers as this survey just focuses on more mainstream and "affordable" brands such as Toyota, Ford, and Nissan. In my experience luxury sales staff tend to have much more knowledge about their products and are more inclined to give the customer exactly what they want, EV or otherwise.

@AutomatchTom is a professional car buying consultant, lover of all things automotive and a bit wagon obsessed. You can find more ramblings and plenty of carporn here.

(Lead image via Shutterstock, clever snark via our own Patrick George)