Are the EV Buyers Out There? Watch What they Do, Not What They Say.

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jun 25, 2010

A prime example of the Chevy Sprint Turbo. Note crude bondo patch and gross parking lot spillage. (Wikipedia photo)I'm amazed by all those Car Talk callers who shamelessly admit to owning Mercury Bobcats, rusty Blazers and dented Taurus wagons with 200,000 miles and spilled Cheerios in the back. There you are on National Public Radio, your darkest automotive secrets exposed for everybody to see!

I'm not sure I want everyone to know my taste in cars. I never owned a Maserati. I had a '67 Plymouth Belvedere four-door with dog-dish hubcaps. I had a '62 Valiant with three-on-the-tree. I had a Mercury Sable. Not a fire-breathing V-8 in the bunch. And what about the ones I aspire to own? Is there something wimpy about liking 1964 Ford Falcon Squire station wagons with fake wood paneling? And how about my passion for the oddball 1950s Borgward Isabella coupe and unrequited love (I never bought one) for the can-I-call-it-a Chevy Sprint Turbo of 1986 vintage?

So if you asked me what I like, I'd probably say something cool, manly and straight out of the pages of Car and Driver: The Lamborghini Murcielago, maybe, or the Ferrari California that will allow me to become one with my machine (see video). In reality, I am about as likely to buy one of these as I am a beach house in Malibu. And that's why I don't trust polls--people say what they think you want to hear.

Read polls and you'll find an ultra-green electorate, supporting tough fuel economy mandates and getting in line to buy hybrids and electric. A dose of reality is probably in order, because the fine print notes that they also don't want to pay anything extra, expect their hybrid to tow a cabin cruiser, and need seating for seven.

According to a Consumer Federation of America survey released in May (even before the Gulf oil spill), 87 percent of respondents said that it is "important that the country reduce its consumption of oil," and nearly two-thirds supported 50-mpg fuel economy standards. But just try to take away the keys to their beloved Ford Excursions and Chevy (sorry) Suburbans!

The last time I looked, the two top-selling vehicles in the U.S. were the Ford F-150 pickup and the Chev-ro-let Silverado. That's sending a message to OPEC, right there, but maybe not the one those CFA poll respondents had in mind. And it's interesting to note that the top two winners in the new "American-Made Index" are the Japanese Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. That probably sends a different kind of message. analyst Shawn Tucker told me, "A lot of people decide they need [my italics] seven-passenger vehicles." He also said that if they will consider small cars, but don't find the "utility" (moving whole Cub Scout packs at a moment's notice) they'll go back to the gas guzzlers.

Now there's a new poll from Ernst ... Young's Global Automotive Center that says more than 10 percent of U.S. drivers "would consider purchasing a plug-in hybrid or electric vehicle." These are the "early adopters" we've all heard about--pioneers who will put up with 100-mile range and an embryonic charging network because they want to be the first in. They have iPads and 4G cell networks. They're indeed very interested in the prospect of EVs, but it's still unclear if they'll actually put money down.

The electric drive Smart in New York: This one I can buy, maybe. (Smart USA photo)Ernst ... Young acknowledges the say-one-thing-but-do-another gap, but it's still bullish. According to Mike Hanley of E...Y, "Even if only a small portion of the 10 percent...are serious, there would still be more than enough demand to sell out the 2010 and 2011 production runs of the major and new manufacturers, while buying crucial time to build out infrastructure and increase public awareness."

Well, if that's so, then why are the EV advocates so nervous? The Electrification Coalition, an advocacy group that includes Carlos Ghosn of Nissan (maker of the forthcoming Leaf battery car) and Fred Smith of FedEx, is supporting pending legislation that would massively subsidize consumer EV purchases in five to 15 key "deployment communities."

The author at the wheel of a Nissan Leaf: But they're not for sale in Connecticut.Robbie Diamond, who founded the coalition, told me that without laws like that the EV could remain in a U.S. niche market, and the mandate-happy Europeans and Chinese would eat our lunch. There is concern in the industry about a gap between EV production and demand unless we subsidize the early market. The Senate version of the federal bill could result in a very impressive $10,000 rebate for people who bought an EV. In California, which has its own $5,000 rebate, that means you'd walk away with a $30,000 car for something like $15,000. Wow!

The pending legislation also contains funding to get local charging stations on the ground, and people say they support that, too--34 percent in the E...Y poll favor subsidizing local charging stations (but probably not if it raised their taxes).

Maybe the key poll finding is this: "Not many consumers are willing to embrace the new technology prior to it being well-established in the market." That's why they're all nervous--the market will need to be goosed into life.

If they'd polled me, I'd have been in the 10 percent who say they will "consider" buying an EV. Sure, I'll consider it, but the only car maker with any intention to sell them in my state (Connecticut) is Smart (which begins fielding an electric drive version in October). And I'm not hearing much about chargers sprouting up on every street corner and the local Starbucks.

So, yeah, like everybody else I love EVs, I want one, I'm considering one, but....a sale on Dodge Ram 2500s? I'm there!

Get the Car Talk Newsletter