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EVs rev up for Act 2

Bapun Raz

Staff member
3 Nov 2010
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DETROIT -- After years of preproduction buzz, the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf are generating interest among the people who count most: buyers.

Most owners are charging their cars at home without any issues. They brag about cruising past the gas station. They're buying, not leasing.

Drivers of the plug-in hybrid Volt are averaging 900 miles between fill-ups of the 9.3-gallon tank, General Motors says. Worries that the Leaf's 100-mile top range would be inadequate are proving unfounded, with owners only having to charge their electric sedans for two hours a night on average -- and occasionally going two days on one charge, Nissan says.

But those are early adopters, the true believers. Many have solar-assisted chargers installed in their homes. They take meticulous steps to conserve juice, such as programming their cars to start and turn on the air conditioning while still plugged in.

To reach mass-market volumes, electric vehicles will have to break through to a broader audience. And many average-Joe consumers still view the Volt and the Leaf as little more than glorified golf carts backed by amusing commercials.

Consumers are confused by the federal government's mpg ratings for electrics (the Volt's is 60 mpg; the Leaf's is 99). They're put off by conflicting information about just how much electric range the cars have, says Cristi Landy, product marketing manager for the Volt.

The mainstream market is "still really confused," Landy told the Automotive News Green Car Conference last week. "We need more customer education. It is not an easy task."

Early adopters

Seven months of real-world data offer a clearer picture of who's buying these cars and how they're using them. For example:

-- Of 2.1 million Volt miles driven, about two-thirds used electricity from the grid; the rest were driven using the onboard gasoline-powered generator.

-- Leaf drivers average fewer than 60 miles a day.

-- 90 percent of Leaf owners bought their cars, despite Nissan's earlier prediction that 90 percent would lease. One-third of Volt owners lease.

-- 86 percent of Volt buyers formerly drove non-GM vehicles, including a combined 33 percent from Toyota and Honda. The Leaf is poaching some owners of Toyota Priuses.

Testimonials from friends, family and neighbors are the most powerful selling tool, says Paul Scott, co-founder of Plug In America, an advocacy group. He's also a Leaf salesman at Santa Monica Nissan, in Santa Monica, Calif. The dealership has sold about 230 Leafs and delivered more than 80.

"We're starting to get this secondary wave of people who have kind of heard about it ... but their friend just got one," Scott says.

Still, Scott is amazed by how many people know little about the technology. He says automakers need "marketing that really shows what these cars can do."

A survey released in March by research firm Synovate says that of nearly 1,900 vehicle shoppers polled, 58 percent didn't realize that plug-in hybrid EVs can run in all-electric mode. More than a quarter thought all hybrid EVs need to be plugged in.

Get behind the wheel

Automakers and advocates agree that the best way to clear up the confusion is to get people behind the wheel. That's why GM requires dealers to keep at least one Volt on hand as a demo.

In December, Mark Frost, general manager at Jim Ellis Chevrolet in Atlanta, put two Volts on display that he bought from a dealer in Long Island.

"We were packed for weeks," he says.

Landy says upcoming Volt ads will focus more on how the car works. The car is being rolled out nationwide, expanding from seven launch markets.

Barriers to bigger EV sales go beyond confusion and ambivalence. Cost is the most obvious one. The sticker price for a 2012 Volt is $39,995, including freight; the price for a 2011 Leaf is $33,630, also including freight. Both qualify for a $7,500 federal tax credit.

A lack of home charging options is another hurdle. Jon Bereisa, a consultant and former GM engineer who played key roles on the Volt and the EV1 electric car in the 1990s, says only 47 percent of U.S. residents can conveniently plug in at home.

Auto executives say more EVs on the road will lead to better public infrastructure and awareness. That's why Nissan welcomes coming entrants such as the electric Ford Focus, says Mark Perry, Nissan North America Inc.'s director of product planning for the Leaf.

Says Perry: "Let's compete on the things that, as car companies, we like to compete on: design, style and performance, rather than public infrastructure and charging stations."

Read more: http://www.autonews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20110620/RETAIL07/306209975/1261#ixzz1PpkoZkEH
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