EV outliers: Oslo, San Francisco…and St. Petersburg?

Charged Electric Vehicles Magazine

By: Charles Morris

August 3, 2019

Many readers are surprised to learn that Charged is headquartered not in California, but in St. Petersburg, Florida. Once a sleepy retirement center nicknamed “God’s Waiting Room,” nowadays “The Burg” is a hipster hotspot, replete with art galleries, craft breweries and vegan eateries.

Another distinction that places St. Pete in the avant-garde: it’s an EV hotspot. For example, it’s the #1 city in Florida for Chevrolet EV sales (and Florida is the #2 state after California). Almost one out of three Chevy EVs sold in the state are driving the palm-shaded streets of St. Pete. According to GM, Chevrolet sold 235 plug-in vehicles (195 Volts and 40 Bolts) in St. Petersburg in 2018, far ahead of second-place Orlando (60 plug-ins) and running neighbor and friendly rival Tampa (28 units) off the road.

It isn’t just the city’s hipster vibe that’s at work here. All these EV sales were closed at Chevy’s sole St. Pete dealer, Maher Chevrolet. Maher Executive Manager Greg Soulliere told us that GM’s sales figures are actually short – in 2018, Maher sold 145 new Volts and 101 Bolts, plus a substantial number of pre-owned vehicles. Maher claims to be not only the biggest seller of Chevy EVs in Florida, but the top seller of Volts outside of California. GM itself has done nothing in particular to push its EVs in Florida. “The success of Bolt EV in Tampa/St Pete is owed to our incredible local dealers,” Chevrolet spokesperson Katie Minter told Charged.

Maher is an exception among auto dealers around the country, to say the least. As Charged and others have documented, most dealerships have little or no interest in selling EVs. Consumer surveys and “secret shopper” projects organized by the Sierra Club, Plug In America and other advocacy groups have found that most dealers keep few or no EVs in inventory, and that sales personnel are unable to answer basic questions about EVs, and tend to steer customers to ICE models.

At Maher, buyers looking for a plug-in vehicle will encounter quite a different attitude. Sales and Lease Consultant Zach Bacon is an EV expert, and he told Charged that pretty much all the salespeople at Maher are knowledgeable enough to educate customers about EVs. About 20 of the company’s employees own Volts. The dealer has 27 charging stations on its lot, and solar panels on its roof. Maher keeps plenty of plug-ins in inventory (on a recent visit to the company’s web site, there were 61 Bolts and 22 Volts for sale) and it features Volts and Bolts in its daily full-page ads in the Tampa Bay Times.

Photo courtesy of Charged: Maher Chevrolet in St. Petersburg

However, the main reason Maher’s plug-in sales are in high gear is that the company leverages the federal EV tax credit to bring down the up-front cost of an EV. For many buyers, the federal tax credit of up to $7,500 (recently reduced to $3,750 for GM) isn’t that great a deal. The credit can only be used to offset federal income tax, and it can’t be carried over to a future tax year, so unless you have a sizable tax bill for the year you buy your vehicle, you can’t take full advantage of it. A cash discount on the price of the car would be much more valuable, and Maher has found a way to make that happen.

Maher claims the federal EV tax credit on each car, then uses it as a courtesy vehicle for three months. The company sells the car as a pre-owned vehicle, and is able to pass on the full amount of the tax credit, plus other incentives, to buyers, resulting in a discount of as much as $10,000 to $18,000 off MSRP. It’s not just the savings that drive sales – having Bolts and Volts in the loaner fleet lets prospective customers experience plug-in vehicles on the roads.

Frank Jackalone, Director of the Sierra Club’s Florida Chapter, recounts his personal experience: “I purchased a 2015 Volt with 2,000 miles on it from Maher for $21,823 ($24,475 out the door). The MSRP for that car was $37,460.  I surveyed more than 20 dealers in South Florida for lease and purchase prices on their Volts and determined that Maher had the best deal if you are willing to purchase a slightly used demo.” Jackalone has a wide network of eco-conscious friends and acquaintances, and word of mouth has surely resulted in a few more sales.

In some cases, Maher has been able to offer a Volt for around the same price as its gas-powered cousin the Cruze. When the price premium is eliminated, and a salesperson can explain the advantages of driving electric, the EV sells itself, Zach Bacon told us.

Of course, a little perspective is in order. Plug-in vehicles continue to be more of an R&D project than a profit center for GM, which sold almost 3 million vehicles in the US in 2018. And this doesn’t seem likely to change any time soon – GM has discontinued the Volt, and has not yet announced firm plans for any new plug-in models. Even at Maher, while you’ll see a Bolt or two charging on the lot, the valuable “shop window” frontage along US Highway 19 is reserved for the “lifted trucks” that make up the bulk of the company’s sales.

Charged issue 44 July-August 2019

By: Charles Morris

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