Dealers Seem Confused About How To Sell The 2014 BMW i3

Yesterday, we learned that certain dealers are saying "no thanks" to the Cadillac ELR on the grounds that the premium plug-in hybrid is a tough sell in some markets, plus potentially expensive retrofits and training. Now it turns out BMW has their own electric dealer woes.

Our amigo John Voelcker over at Green Car Reports says BMW is having to cope with a lack of interest in the 2014 BMW i3 among dealers, general sales training and education issues, and salespeople's tendency to steer customers towards more conventional cars.

Voelcker quotes New Jersey restauranteur and early electric adopter Tom Moloughney, who said in a blog post that local BMW dealers are turning for him to answers to questions over the i3, which goes on sale in the U.S. in a few months.

Moloughney writes that modern electric cars — even ones with optional gasoline range extenders like the i3 — are a new ball game for many owners. Drivers don't always understand basic things like what the range will be, how to manage the battery life, how the battery will perform in different weather, how expensive repairs will be, why the tires are so skinny, and so on.

It turns out that BMW dealers may not have answers to these questions. Moloughney's post is quite revelatory. Here's what he said:

Then came the real concerning revelation. I started getting emails and private messages from BMW "Geniuses". They reached me though this blog and the BMW i3 forums on the internet where I post regularly and answer questions about the i3. After completing Genius training they felt they didn't know enough about the i3 to be comfortable, so they were reaching out to me to help answer questions they had. The worrisome part, is the questions they have are basic, generic electric vehicle questions. If they weren't taught this stuff then they will likely be no help at all to the dealers.

He's even been invited to dealerships as far away as Canada to give i3 training because apparently BMW isn't giving them what they need.

In addition to the Geniuses asking me for help, I have recently been getting emails from BMW dealerships asking me questions about the i3. They say BMW has promised them support for the i brand, but they haven't gotten it yet and people are now starting to call and come in to ask for i3 and i8 information and they don't have anything. I have even been asked to come to a couple of dealerships to help train the staff.

The "i" sub-brand is a pretty big deal for BMW both in terms of sales and furthering their own technological prowess. If dealers are having to reach out to customers to educate them on how the car works, it doesn't bode well for sales prospects.

I think this speaks to a larger issue with electric and advanced hybrid cars in general. They can be pretty different to own and operate than conventional, gas-powered cars, and if dealers want to sell them to a more mainstream audience than just the tech-savvy niche crowd who already get how they work, they'll have a lot of self-educating to do. What's worse than a salesperson who doesn't know what they're talking about?

At the same time, as Voelcker says in this post, dealers are motivated by sales. The temptation may exist to just steer unsure customers towards conventional cars because they're an easier sell while the i3 languishes on the lot.

The i3 may not be a hardcore performance machine (but the BMW i8 probably will be) but its technology is very impressive. I hope it gets a chance on the marketplace beyond just the early-adopter electric crowd.