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.

New to EVs? Start here

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  3. Buying Your First Home EV Charger
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