Reaching Out to Auto Dealers

In some ways, it’s a bit premature to be reaching out to auto dealers, since most of them aren’t yet selling electric vehicles (EVs) or plug-in hybrids (PHEVs). On the other hand, now is the time to let them know that Plug In America can help them succeed when they do start selling plug-ins. They could avoid some of the mistakes made by dealers with the last generation of EVs. We want them to succeed!

Sherry works the NADA booth.

So Plug In America invested some of our time and money to establish a presence for the first time at the 2011 National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) conference. Reporters who attended our press conference the first day eagerly snapped up copies of the hot-off-the-presses 2011 edition of “Charged Up & Ready To Roll: The Definitive Guide To Plug-in Electric Vehicles.” (And if you’re a paid member of Plug In America, your free digital version will be coming to you soon. Not yet a member? Join here.) Dealers stopped by our booth with questions and took away helpful materials.

Other exhibits included EV makers Mitsubishi (showing off its iMiEV), Chevrolet (with the Volt), Wheego (showing off its LiFe), and charge station manufacturer Ecotality. And probably some I missed. It’s a start. Like I said, this isn’t exactly a front-burner topic in the minds of dealers yet, but it will be before long.

At every large convention a daily newspaper gives the highlights of the show, and references to plug-ins have been popping up each day in the NADA Daily. Here’s a sampling to give you a flavor:

Chevrolet: Greg Heinrich, Chevrolet’s representative on General Motors Co.’s National Dealer Council and owner of three Chevrolet stores in southeast Nevada, told the NADA Daily that the Chevy Volt technology is “really outstanding.” All the dealers would like to get their hands on more Volts, he said, but they understand that GM wants to get it right and will deliver as fast as it can. The buzz about the Volt has a “halo effect” that helps sell Chevy gassers too. Plug In America’s tip to dealers: Don’t try to divert customers who come in curious about the Volt to sell them a gasser, a mistake we saw in the last generation of EVs. Promoting the Volt builds a dealer’s future. If customers settle on a gasser instead of the Volt, fine, but let them decide without undue persuasion.

Infiniti: Will Infiniti produce a luxury EV within the next couple of years? Soon-to-be chairman of Infiniti’s National Dealer Advisory Board Bruce Lamb, who runs the Infiniti store in Memphis, thinks it’s a good idea. He’s installing charging stations in prominent locations at a new Infiniti store that’s under construction “even though the car is still a way off,” knowing that it makes more sense to install them now rather than tear up construction to install them later, he told the NADA Daily.

Mitsubishi: Mitsubishi has announced that it plans to produce eight new EVs and PHEVs over the next 5 years. Is the company’s brand image where it needs to be to support sales of these new plug-ins? Scott Grove, chairman of the Mitsubishi National Advisory Board, says “not quite.” He told the NADA Daily that after the company finishes a launch campaign for one of its non-electric vehicles, it will start on a campaign for the i-MiEV. And he showed that he gets an important aspect — that any plug-ins being sold generate excitement and demand for more: “I think the whole market will generate a fervor that isn’t brand-specific. To have a vehicle whose niche is different than the others and to have awareness of electric cars in general will actually help more across brands.”

Wheego courts dealers at NADA.

Wheego: Having obtained U.S. regulatory approval at the end of 2010 to begin selling its highway-capable LiFe EV, Wheego is building its first 500 and will start selling through 35 U.S. dealers on March 30. Wheego courted more dealers at its NADA booth, and could expand to 70 dealers by the end of 2011, Wheego President Jeff Boyd told the NADA Daily. The two-seater with a 100-mile range will retaill for $33,995 (including dealer delivery) before the federal $7,500 federal tax credit. To sell Wheegos, dealers must order a set number of vehicles based on market potential and must set up mobile service because “95% of what could go wrong with this car can be fixed in the customer’s driveway,” Boyd said. On the plus side for dealers, there’s no up-front investment requirements other than ordering vehicles and no rules on store design, signs or parts inventories.

Volvo: Doug Speck, CEO of Volvo Cars of North America, told the NADA Daily that Volvo would begin testing 8-12 of its C30 EVs in North America, but he wouldn’t discuss timing. He said Volvo’s long-term plan includes electrification. Underwhelming.

BMW: George Sharpe, chairman of the BMW National Dealer Forum and owner of a BMW store in Grand Rapids, Mich., was asked what he expects from BMW’s Megacity EV in 2013. He thinks it will be a good niche vehicle for large cities.

Nissan: Crain Communications, which produces the NADA Daily, had copies of another one of its papers at the show — Automotive News — which says the “slow Leaf launch” will speed up soon. It acknowledges that customers want their Leafs now. The article says Nissan has taken 20,000 orders for Leafs in the United States, 6,000 in Japan, and 1,300 in Europe. Nissan’s Japanese plant should be producing 4,000 Leafs by March to reach its target of 10,000 Leafs made by March 31. The 6,000 Japanese customers should have their Leafs by then, and the other 4,000 Leafs will be divided between customers in the U.S. and Europe. Most U.S. orders will not be filled until after April 1, with all U.S. orders expected to be filled by summer 2011.



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