Drivers of Limited-Production EVs Face Challenges

By · February 13, 2014

Honda Fit EV

The Honda Fit EV: A great car and a great deal, but try to find one! (Jim Motavalli photo)

Do some EVs get treated like afterthoughts but their otherwise-engaged manufacturers? It certainly looks like that. Among the cars that are on the market now but hard to find (and sometimes hard to service) are the Honda Fit EV, the Toyota RAV4 EV, the Scion iQ—I’ve never actually seen one—and the Fiat 500e.

Mike Bornstein of Bakersfield, California says his RAV4 is #86, purchased in October 2012. He loves the car, but not the ownership experience. “Unfortunately, both Toyota and Tesla treat the car as their ugly stepchild,” he said. “Salesmen literally try to convince you not to buy it (sounds like the EV1). Toyota only sells it in California, and only at 25 select dealers in California near six selected large cities.”

Bornstein lives 90 miles from the nearest EV dealer. If he takes the car to his local dealer, Bornstein says, “Toyota comes down with a large hammer.” One issue, according to the forum, is that firmware updates require a special Tesla-supplied cable, and only the appointed dealers have them. “I got half a firmware update,” reports a poster named Ground_Gainer. “[The dealer] called around a little bit and then pulled me aside and basically said I had to go to California to get the second half of the update and they were not allowed to touch anything on my car ever again.”

Where's Tesla?

Should Tesla get any of the blame here? It's just a supplier, after all. But one problem many owners are encountering (in addition to the scarcity of that Tesla cable) is an issue with the gateway electronic control unit, another Tesla-supplied part that's reportedly been slow to ship.

Toyota RAV4 EV

Toyota's RAV4 EV: Everybody loves...the car, that is. (Bradley Berman photo)

Jana Hartline, a Toyota environmental spokeswoman, says that in fact Toyota can and does provide routine maintenance for RAV4 EVs at local dealers—fluids, tire rotation—but anything involving the plug-in powertrain has to go to an EV-certified dealer.

Finding a Fit

“V.G.,” a Honda salesman in Connecticut, loves the Fit EV. But he admits, “We don’t sell a lot of them. Honda drops one off every few months, so they’re very rare and very hard to get. We don’t even know when they’re going to get dropped off.”

Just 30 Honda Fit EVs were sold in January of 2014. Honda spokesman Chris Naughton tells me, "Our allocation plans are a matter of contract with our dealers, but it is done in a fair and equitable manner. All Fit EV's are identical, so there's no special ordering. Every dealer that is authorized to sell the Fit EV, is capable of servicing. Our stated goal at launch was to lease 1,100 units and that remains our plan."

One reason there may not be many Fit EVs sold in Connecticut is their cold-weather performance. A New York owner, Art712, complains that his 80-mile range dropped to 32 miles in 20-degree weather. That makes it useless for his 54-mile one-way commute (with a charger on either end. "I always drive in ECO mode and up until now never used the heat as to maintain range," he said. "The car is useless if it will only go 32 miles in winter."

The Scion iQ? Forget About It.

There are cars much harder to find than that Honda. Toyota said in late 2012 that its tiny Scion iQ electric car, once slotted for wider distribution, would instead be used in car-sharing programs. Just 90 cars were earmarked for that use, which makes sense because Toyota said, “Fewer than 100 of these vehicles will be brought into the U.S. for testing purposes.”

Scion iQ EV

The Scion iQ: Just 90 in the U.S., and they're in car-share programs. (Toyota photo)

Hartline confirms there are still only 90 electric iQs in the U.S. The company has long been skeptical of EV potential, at least in the short term. How’s this for a ringing endorsement? “Up to now, cost and convenience issues have limited BEV’s appeal with a broad consumer market,” said Toyota’s Chris Hostetter. “Toyota developed the iQ EV specifically as a city commuter, for use in an urban environment, where driving distances are likely to be short, charging opportunities numerous, and its compact proportions beneficial.”

It’s too bad you can’t buy it, because the plug-in iQ shines in a CNN Money poll as the one of the 10 cheapest cars to fuel in the U.S., with a $500 annual bill and 121 MPGe.

Disappearing Leases and Accessible Plugs

With the California-only Fiat 500e, one big issue is actually finding cars with the tempting $199 a month three-year lease. One buyer tried to sign at that price but was actually charged, $263.50. Taxes are applied, and Fiat’s fine print says $199 requires a “dealer contribution.”

Finally, an odd issue causing some owner pain is charging up at dealerships. Some Toyota dealers have their chargers located in the service bays (mainly for dealing with plug-in Priuses) but some RAV4 owners complain they’re not owner accessible. Sean of San Diego told the RAV4 forum that he was turned away from a Carlsbad Toyota dealer, but was treated cordially by the Chevy dealer just across the street. "Thanks to the courtesy of Chevrolet I am now charged enough to make it home," he wrote.

It looks like you have to go accessible-charger hunting, with Chevy and Nissan reportedly the most hospitable--no matter what car you're driving. But be careful, because even some of those reportedly turn power off at night.


· · 4 years ago

"But one problem many owners are encountering (in addition to the scarcity of that Tesla cable) is an issue with the gateway electronic control unit, another Tesla-supplied part that's reportedly been slow to ship."

To understand the problem, the above should say "...gateway electronics control unit, a Tesla-supplied part that has had many failures in customer cars and has been back-ordered for weeks at a time in Toyota's parts distribution system. Customers have had to call Toyota corporate customer care to get the part expedited to their dealer."

· · 4 years ago

", complains that his 80-mile range dropped to 32 miles in 20-degree weather. "

That is shocking to hear....

· · 4 years ago

The Honda Fit uses Toshiba's SCiB battery, which supposedly has excellent cold weather capability.
How they have screwed up is a mystery.

Mysteriously the links to the specifications seem to have disappeared from the Toshiba website,

· · 4 years ago

I can say that my Mitsubishi I shows a similar range(32 miles) in our cold winter weather, if using the heater for bulk of the driving. My work commute is 32 miles total, and by the time I get back home, the range is basically at zero. I almost never run the heater, and only ran it continuously recently to see how low the trange would go if I used it constantly. Pretty much used it all up. But then again, my "I" has a much lower range to begin with.


· · 4 years ago

I'm only using 2 more kWh for my 27 mile commute in the winter with 90% highway with slight heat use on automatic control. Not sure how someone goes from 80 mile range to 32 in the winter and they claim they are not using the heat. My guess is the car is not garaged at night, thus the batteries are colder in the morning. Also, is the owner not charging before they need the car in the morning, thus warming the batteries?

· · 4 years ago

After a while, EV drivers learn to ignore the DTE gauge, as it is generally useless. The full/empty gauge becomes a much more reliable method of determining range. However dealers have no clue as to the expected range per tick on the gauge. My Fiat 500e often indicates 50 miles DTE when fully charged, mainly because my typical driving of city stop and go seem to confuse it. I can then get on the freeway and drive at 60 MPH for 15 minutes, and the DTE gauge continues to show the same number as it really has no clue. The best way to actually figure out what you range is, tape over the DTE gauge and track your daily mileage and electricity use. Once you have a week or two of data, you can get a pretty good value to estimate your actual range. Divide by 4 and use that with your full/empty gauge (i.e., 1/4 charge = 25 miles). My 500e makes that a bit more difficult because it reports energy use in a worthless value of MPG-E.
The guess-o-meter as many call it does more of a dis-service to EV owners, and dealers too since it causes more negative responses (as seen in this column) than positive feedback.

· · 4 years ago

The Scion iQ EV is available through City CarShare in Pleasanton, CA. It has a range of 35-40 miles.

It's unclear where Honda is hiding the Fit EV. I've tried to lease one for over nine months and got on the waiting list at 10 different dealers in CA. Quite a magic trick, it seems to have disappeared.

· · 4 years ago

I think there should be a column titled "The Disappearing EV" as it seems that only the Nissan Leaf and the Tesla Model S are widely available. The rest are strangely enough not really available. I am surprised though, that even in CA you can't get thse cars. Although, the Honda Fit EV was quickly snapped up when they announced those great lease deals. Since we know that it is a compliance car, no big shock, The Mitsubishi I, the Ford Focus EV and a few others though, get zero advertising and are rarely seen...

In regards to range in cold weather, my car is garaged, plugged in(Level I only) and on cold days the range drops about 25% if not using the heater. It dips to about 50% range if using the heater on a cold day. This has been a pretty rough winter, with temps below average. Last year we were seeing better results, but still reduced. The Honda Fit EV having its range go from 80 to 32, if in the Northeast is surprising but not completley so. But I would have expected less dramatic range issues...

· · 4 years ago

Its very clear these auto companies don't want electric cats on the road or all would have a range extender. Ill just stay with my ICE

· · 4 years ago

The answer to: 'why don't they?' is usually:'money'.
Putting in an ICE engine, HT exhaust and so on costs money, increases the weight and decreases the electric performance and takes up space.
See discussion on the optional RE on the i3 for the issues.

· · 4 years ago

Kearny Mesa Fiat in San Diego, where we leased our 500e, has several 500e in stock and does not play games with the pricing. I am 100% satisfied with their sales and service. Full disclosure: they advertise in the print edition of Electric Car Insider magazine. Even if they didn't, I'd still give them a 100% satisfaction rating. They are one of the few dealers who do not mark up the national lease deal. Curt Flory, the sales manager is a great guy, an EV advocate, and personally drives a 500e (purchased, not a company loaner).

· · 4 years ago

Jana from Toyota doesn't know what she's talking about. Toyota WILL NOT provide routine service to RAV4 EV's outside of their 25 dealers. I took mine to one and Toyota HQ called my dealer and told them not to touch it again, and I simply took it in for a 5k mile checkup, not any kind of EV service. So despite the fact I paid an extra $1,200 for Toyota Extra Care, it doesn't matter. I have to drive 2 1/2 hours to a certified dealer to even get a firmware update. Lousy service. I promise that I will never ever own another Toyota unless they get their act together.

· · 4 years ago

Pure electrics are a stepping stone, so it is not a surprise that manufacturers don't have their hearts in it. Mercedes has not marketed their electric B Class, but already heavily marketed the fuel cell version, even after delaying it an additional 2 years. Electric cars are far more practical with a fuel cell range extender.

· · 4 years ago

I find it funny when people say they barely use heat in the winter to conserve range. If anyone wants to know why wide scale adoption of EV's isn't happening this is one of the reasons, outside of the warm weather states. This even applies to Tesla that gets around this a bit because of their large battery. But I wonder how the Tesla's were doing in Ohio in the sub zero (Fahrenheit) temperatures in the midwest a couple of weeks ago.

· · 4 years ago

Theflew: That's a fair comment. On most winter days, I have found it necessary to shuttle the defroster on/off(primarily to make sure the windshield stays clear). Buit on those really cold days, it has not been fun. I am hoping(as others are also)that a manufacturer finds a safe and practical way to add in some sort of non electric battery heater. On cars with larger batteries, it is not so critical, but the Mitsubishi has a small battery, and it's no fun being cold. Frankly though, if I had workplace charging the issue would essentially disappear. AND, if I had Level II charging at home, it would mitigate some of the difficulties I face, as pre-hearing with Level II makes the car MUCH warmer than using 110V outlet. Finally, there was a post about a Tesla driver in Chicago who had no problems with heat, due to the large battery.

· · 4 years ago

RAV4 EV in western Pennsylvania a couple of weeks ago (lowest temp was -26 F) saw an actual range around 98 miles to 103 miles. DTE gauge is much lower at 67 to 78 miles. (Guesstimated pack size is around 50 kWh with 35kWh usable) My energy efficiency suffers to about 555 W/mile in Tesla style energy calculation with the inefficient heater Toyota chose. In comparison, several reported model S efficiency numbers are around low 300 W/mile range. So Tesla also see large reduction but with large battery they still get 188 miles range in the -20 F temperatures in a 85kWh model.

· · 4 years ago

Hydrogen is just around the corner!!! It's the way of the future, and always will be!!!

· · 4 years ago

Tony, that was a very catchy phrase several years ago. Fuel cells have been implemented worldwide from telecom backup power to data centers to utility scale fuel cell parks. Yes, fuel cells are here.

Fuel cells in transportation is just around the corner. Literally. Hyundai, Toyota, and Honda.

· · 4 years ago

Fuel cell cars are just around the corner, yes. I have little doubt that Toyota will have *something* in 2015. But then, Honda has *something* today. And by something I mean a very expensive, hard-to-find-fuel-for, slow (for the price), low-quantity car that's only available in California.

Here are the key pieces, straight from Toyota:
Sells for $99k (or so they hope)
100kW fuel cell (less power than a Volt, far less than Tesla)
5,000-10,000 / yr (they hope)
Competitive with EVs in 2030 (they hope)

Again, I believe that Toyota will probably have something on the road next year. And yes, I believe it will get better over time. But for cars available in 2015, it is just not competitive. And it will likely be getting even less so with EVs for the rest of this decade and into the next.

And don't get me started on hydrogen production...

· · 4 years ago

BTW, Toyota will receive far more ZEV CARB credits for each fuel cell car than they do for each RAV4EV. And they can satisfy 100% of the requirement if I'm not mistaken. Make no mistake about it - the 2015 fuel cell Toyota is 100% a CARB play.

· · 4 years ago

The first generation Honda fuel cell car from 2008 is still on the road today, but that is missing the point. Guessing the future stats of a future vehicle is also missing the point. The point is that fuel cells are now at the point of commercialization. Car manufacturers won't make any money on FCEV's until 2025 and they will sell in small quantities initially. But to dismiss fuel cells as a promise that will never come true is to ignore industry and market developments.

· · 4 years ago

Toyota will earn 3 times as many ZEV credits for their Hydrogen car. That means that they can make 1/3 as many as they do RAV4 EVs and lose 3 times more money per unit and still come out even. All the while, they wait for others to pay for building up the fueling infrastructure necessary to make their car viable for more than a small pocket of drivers.

I really have no interest in buying a car that I have to fill every time at a fueling station. After driving an EV and charging at home, I'm just done with that.

· · 4 years ago


"Guessing the future stats of a future vehicle is also missing the point. The point is that fuel cells are now at the point of commercialization."

Not really. 1) I'm not "guessing", I'm quoting Toyota. I sure hope they aren't "guessing" the stats of a car that will be brought to market next year. 2) Looking at the car's stats is hardly missing the point. This car is not competitive with anything on the market today. Even you seem to understand this. So why is Toyota bringing it to market? Simply to earn the ZEV credits now, of course! They then have a vested interest to promote FCVs as the future, yet they can't seem to say they'll be competitive for more than 10 years. If you look back at the history of the "future" of FCVs, they have always been ~10 years out. Today is no different.

As far as dismissing Fuel Cells, I hope you're not lumping me in that category. As an engineer, my job is to make the improbable happen, and I see it every day. But Fuel Cells are a ways off, and we should be focusing on the next step which is EVs. If EVs lead to FCVs, great. I just hope they are EREVs so I can do the bulk of my fueling at home.

· · 4 years ago

"If EVs lead to FCVs, great. I just hope they are EREVs so I can do the bulk of my fueling at home."

I agree 100%. A Plug-in FCV is the only hydrogen vehicle I would consider. I don't think any automaker has yet shown a FCV with any energy input except hydrogen. The Fuel Cell extender Kangoo was done by a third party.

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