Originally published on CleanTechnica.
By Steve Bakker
A guy walks into a local Chevy dealer. Says, “Hey, you guys got any Bolts? That’s Bolt, with a B.” In return, the guy receives blank stares from the sales staff … replaced shortly by smiles, a negatory on the Bolt, and a verbal rundown of all the great models on the lot the guy would just love, such as the Cruze, the Sonic, the Malibu, and yes, the Volt. The Spark went unmentioned.
Actually, that’s what the guy thought might happen. The guy, who is me, had his head full of rumors and speculation as to how the Chevrolet dealer network would respond to what is being characterized as a low-volume, low-markup, compliance vehicle for ZEV states. The rumors had it that the dealers would be loath to carry the Bolt and would try to up-sell any customer inquiring about the Bolt.
So, whilst driving by a Chevy dealer in the last week of 2016, I decided to go in and see for myself. The promise from GM for quite some time had been that the Bolt would be available in late 2016. It was now very late 2016, and I wanted to get the story directly from the horse’s mouth. The dealer in question was Rio Vista Chevrolet in Buellton, California. Buellton is on the central coast, bordering the west end of the Santa Ynez Valley. If you’ve ever seen the movie Sideways, it’s the car dealer you see the two main characters repeatedly walk by on their way to the local watering hole / steak house.
This is a rural location, home to cattle ranches, horse ranches, wine production, and the local businesses that serve them. The ranchers have been in the valley forever — which is since the Native Americans were relocated to a small plot of land in the eastern end of the valley — and these folks are often recognized by their headwear — cowboy hats and trucker caps. The winemakers have only been around since the late ’60s, so their headwear varies quite a bit, as this subspecies of the human race draws from legacy winemakers on down to recent LA transplants who gave up the frenetic southern California freeways in search of a more serene lifestyle.
The one thing this disparate group of people have in common is that a good many of them drive pickup trucks. This is truck country. The folks here have work to get done, and they aren’t messing around with any girlie-man, new-age transportation contraptions. So when I walked through the glass doors of the showroom and said, “Hey, you guys got any Bolts?” I was astonished when the salesman said, “Yes. We have six on order. They are due in three weeks, but they’re all sold.”
So, there we are. The salesman is smiling at me. I am smiling at the Bolt news. Then a disembodied voice from a nearby office injects “Actually, one of those is for sale. The white one. The customer backed out.” The voice turned out to be that of the sales manager. Interesting. A real live Bolt for sale in early January. The conversation with the salesman now continues.
guy: What is the white one selling for?
salesman: It’s a fully loaded model with the fast-charging option. We have it at 42xxx.
Note: Quite honestly I can’t remember the xxx part. But it was below MSRP. Below retail. The Chevy site puts a similarly configured car at about 43.5K.
salesman: Yes. We are selling below retail. That’s the way we have to do business in the valley. Our customers would skin us alive if we didn’t discount.
I couldn’t help but be cognizant of the fact that although the salesman had employed a euphemism, some of the dealer’s customers actually had the equipment to carry out such a threat. Yikes.
guy: “Wow. Impressive. I’m interested in leasing though. Is it safe to assume I can just use the lease calculator on the Chevy website?”
The salesman answered in the affirmative, I think. But a few seconds later, the sales manager — who was still eavesdropping on the conversation — emerges with a freshly printed lease quote. I look at the numbers and astonishment again takes place. I had recently checked the Chevy website and it had a lease configuration for a base model (LT) at 10,000 miles/year, $4,500 down, and a hefty monthly payment in the 4s or 5s as best I recall (the lease info has since been revised on Chevy’s site to a more favorable set of numbers). The sheet of paper the sales manager handed me was for a loaded “Premiere” model that also included the fast-charging option:
15K miles /year
$914.10 down payment
GM finance gets to claim the $7500 tax credit
Customer gets to claim the $2500 rebate check from the State of California
The deal included tax, license, documentation fee, and delivery charges. This was an out-the-door price. It was a hard copy. And they were prepared to do the paperwork right then and there. So, the numbers were real.
Not bad. This truck-selling dealership with a conservative customer base was happily accommodating the left-leaning, tech-oriented, I-want-a-pure-electric-car car segment living amidst the pickups, and quite a number of those folks were expressing interest in the Bolt. I took a liking to the dealership. These people looked me in the eye, did not try to upsell me, and rendered the exact information I was seeking … no more, no less. Nice to know the straight shooter reputation of country folk is still intact.
Now fast forward about a week. The same guy (me) is in the town of Paso Robles visiting a body shop for a quote to repair a small dent in my Prius. The shop is behind Paso Robles Chevrolet. While waiting for the quote, I wander over to the dealer’s showroom and run the same set of questions by some big guy who greets me. The “big guy” turned out to be the managing partner of the dealership. An interesting conversation ensues. First I learned that the dealer had sold one Bolt in late December. OK! This was a confirmed sighting. GM had delivered at least one Bolt into the hands of a customer by the end of 2016.
A larger allocation was due sometime in January and most of the next batch was already spoken for. The big guy then offered an unsolicited tidbit — he had spent $26,000 on specialized tools for servicing the Bolt. The dealer had also dropped a few grand on a Bolt air conditioning servicing machine, and had sent one of their mechanics to electric car school.
Wow. This was another rural central California Chevy dealer putting its money where its mouth was. The perimeter of the dealership was encased by pickup trucks. Yet, rather than “circle the wagons” in a defensive position against the future … they were embracing it. These guys had chosen to invest in the inevitable. The big guy actually proclaimed one of the prime virtues of an EV:
“We don’t have to go to war to fuel them.”
According to my finely-tuned Jedi senses, the big guy was not just laying out a line of fertilizer. A floor salesman later confided in me that the reason he worked for the dealership was because of big guy’s integrity.
OK. Now I was getting curious about how other dealers were handling the Bolt. Is everyone this forward looking? How many other California dealers had taken delivery on a Bolt before yearend? How many dealers were even ordering Bolts? To answer these questions, I could have hopped in my car and driven to each and every dealer in the state. Great road trip idea, eh? Just think of how many In/Out Burger stands you could knock over.
But given that the Flux Capacitor in my Delorean had a blown Tesla coil, a road trip would take so long that the information would stale. An internet search seemed a viable substitute, but as will be demonstrated shortly in this article, you can’t believe everything you read on the internet. The remaining option was to use the internet just to perform a hard target search of the total number of Chevy dealers in the state, and then poll 25% of them by telephone. A quarter of the California dealer network seemed a reasonable sample size to get an idea what the reality of the situation was. The website dealerrater.com listed 152 Chevy dealers. I selected a random subset of 38.
Note: No offense, Oregon. It’s just that my home state of California is a handful in and of itself.
I phoned a smattering of dealers from Eureka to San Diego. A few big city dealers. A few Podunk small town dealers. The internet had told me that 31 of 38 dealers were listing the Bolt on their website. I called those dealers to confirm if they really had any Bolts on the lot and if they had actually sold any Bolts, especially before the end of the year.
Combined, the 31 dealers had delivered about a dozen Bolts before January 31st. That, of course, is just an informal telephone survey. Nonetheless, it seemed clear that a handful of Bolt deliveries had taken place, and to be fair, GM should get a thumbs up for making good on its promise. The other promises regarding volume deliveries and expansion of the delivery range in 2017 are to be measured later. But, so far, the Bolt seems on course.
Additionally, at least 35 Bolts in totality had made it into the hands of customers as of the end of the first week of January 2017. This again is based on the same sources from the aggregate of 31 dealers. Lots of additional Bolts appear poised to flow into showrooms in the days and weeks to follow. One claim from virtually all of the dealers was that there was a lot of interest in the Bolt, and most of the cars on order had been presold. A high percentage of the incoming stock was already spoken for in the form of $500–1,000 (refundable) deposits. A term commonly bandied about was “right of refusal,” meaning the customer could choose their color, options, and trim level; put down a deposit; and still have a get-out-of-buying-a-Bolt card in case they got cold feet when the car arrived.
Note: In the You-can’t-believe-everything-you-read-on-the-internet department, there was a November 2016 article published on Inside EVs that indicated Bolts would be shipping en masse by late November. That turned out not to transpire. I spoke to one of the dealers noted in the article, Boardwalk Chevrolet in Redwood City, who was quoted as expecting 53 Bolts by years end, but in fact the total number of Bolts it had received by December 31st was zero. This is not to dis the article or the publication — it’s just that, for whatever reason, the promised delivery goals simply did not materialize.
[Editor’s note: As we previously reported in our EV sales report, GM did reportedly log 579 deliveries before the end of 2016.]
A few of the dealer conversations were worth repeating. The Chevy dealer closest to the Tesla factory boasted one of the largest selections of Bolts on order — over a hundred — and they were one of the dealers that took delivery on at least one Bolt before year’s end. I’m sure GM saw to that.
A Chevy salesman at Dublin Chevrolet had an interesting perspective on why most electric cars are so goofy looking (Tesla is the obvious exception). He claimed that customers don’t buy electric cars unless they stand out in some way. Why? Because many people buy primarily for vanity. For image. It’s an ego thing. Such people want others to know that they are trying to help the environment.
I have to say this explanation has a ring of truth to it. Think about it. A person driving an electric car gets little immediate feedback that they are helping the environment. You don’t see the CO2 emissions dropping. You don’t have an instrument on the dashboard measuring the drop in atmospheric carbon monoxide. But you do get instant feedback when someone smiles at your standout electric car. This is not a bad thing. Acceptance by your peers is meaningful and measureable. It makes you feel good about your choices. The salesman also mentioned that the Bolt actually may not be goofy looking enough! He claimed that half the customers that looked at the Bolt ended up buying a Volt. Wow. Image counts.
The salesman’s words are of course a subjective opinion. There are many moving parts that make up a buyer’s mind as to which model they choose. Still, he had another reason why goofy is better when it comes to electric cars. You don’t get hard looks from other drivers when you’re zipping down the HOV lane at twice the speed of the less fortunate. People, and cops, know you’re driving an electric car and give you a pass.
As an aside, the same salesman claimed that his dealership loses money on every Volt it sells. And they sell a LOT. He claimed to have sold 43 Volts in December on his own. The gentleman felt he was working for a dealer that had the vision to see that the electric car was the inevitable future (hadn’t I heard that somewhere before?). They were taking the long view. And because of the volume of Volts they had sold, the dealership was now eligible for a large allocation of Bolts (which it doesn’t appear they’re gonna make much on either). It might have been BS, and who knows what GM might have rebated the dealer on the Volt losses, but if I decide to lease a Bolt, the Dublin and Paso Robles dealers will be on my short list.
To wrap this essay up, I’d like to say a word or two on pricing. And not more than that, because car prices in general are always in flux. Two observations though: at a glance, published prices of the 31 dealers seem confined to a fairly tight range revolving around the MSRP. A few dealers are selling a bit over MSRP, and one dealer is selling for under MSRP (in addition to the aforementioned Rio Vista Chevy, who is also on my short list).
Secondly, and far more important, LEASE PRICES are all over the map. Seriously. There is the lease pricing calculator on the official Chevrolet.com site. Pricing there is on the high side (as described above). Opposite that is the lease pricing reported by another Inside EVs article making reference to a LeaseHacker discovery that Bolts could be leased for as little as $0 down and $309/month. This was for a low-mileage lease, and required the lessee to surrender their $2500 CA rebate, but this is a very different package than the Chevy website is dealing out. The thing is, the two dealers I had asked about the $309 lease had never heard of the deal even though it is supposedly GM approved. Moral of the story: Bolt lease deals need to be shopped. That’s probably good advice for any car model, but even within the official network some dealers are getting a multi-thousand dollar down payment AND stiff monthly payments, while others are leasing for below MSRP and getting the down payment under $1,000, leaving the customer with funds for several months of payments when the state rebate check comes in.
Finally, I learned one other thing in my calling spree. Some businesses still have a person answering the phone as opposed to having turned things over to an automated attendant. A good portion of the phoned dealers have a real live human being picking up the phone and politely directing people’s calls. I’m, once again, astonished. Actual human-to-human interaction. Entrenched automobile dealers embracing sustainable transportation. What is this world coming to?
Reprinted with permission.