Tesla’s Cybertruck is making waves. But will it win buyers in Canada’s pickup heartland?
Dec 18, 2019
Michael Bettencourt

Despite strong initial interest, there are signs loyalty to classic brands could trump the EV’s attractive specs and price point

Despite strong initial interest, there are signs loyalty to classic brands could trump the EV’s attractive specs and price point

Given all the gasps after Tesla’s Cybertruck first rolled onto the stage in late November, and after all the subsequent memes and comments on its triangular styling, low US$39,900 base price, and sector-dominating acceleration and hauling ability on social media, one burning question remains: how will pickup-loving Canadians buy into it?

The answer could have a potentially tectonic impact on the Canadian automotive market given the popularity of full-size pickup trucks.

Loyal followings

In the first half of 2019, pickups made up roughly 19 per cent of all new vehicle sales in Canada; through the end of November, four of the top 10 best-selling vehicles were Detroit-based brand trucks with loyal followings.

The largest of these is for the Ford F-150, which is on track to finish 2019 as the country’s best-selling vehicle overall — for the eleventh year in a row.

Against that backdrop, there’s evidence of the Cybertruck’s widespread appeal — but also some widespread hesitation. While the indicators point to a bright future for electric pickups in general, they also suggest that brand loyalty of pickup buyers combined with the out-there styling of the Cybertruck may limit the Tesla’s appeal for non-traditional owners and EV enthusiasts, at least initially.

250,000 reservations

A week after the truck’s debut, Tesla CEO Elon Musk confirmed 250,000 order reservations. While that sounds like a lot, it’s less impressive when you consider that those reservations only required a US$100 commitment ($150 in Canada) — compared to the US$1,000 Tesla asked of would-be Model 3 buyers, who placed 400,000 reservations in two weeks in 2016.

Tesla Cybertruck tailgate Canada
The Tesla Cybertruck

How many of those pre-orders came from Canadians? Tesla isn’t saying, nor will it indicate which provinces or regions showed the most interest.

But in one traditional pickup hotbed, the Electric Vehicle Association of Alberta tweeted that it saw dozens of Cybertruck orders coming from the province the night after it was unveiled.

Shock, then curiosity

In neighbouring Saskatchewan, Matthew Pointer, president of the Saskatchewan EV Association, estimates that “reservations [in the province] are definitely in the hundreds for individuals, and potentially more with contractor and trade companies.” For reference, he notes, this is in a province with only 300 or so EVs registered in total.

“Initially it was shock and confusion from most people,” he admits. “However, that initial shock turned into genuine curiosity and then [among EV owners he knew who were watching] an order a few hours later — people started to realize that the design had real utility and functional purpose.”

For non-EV fans, however, he suggests there may need to be more time to be convinced, at least in significant numbers. “Long-time pickup owners are very brand loyal.”


Measuring loyalty

Rivian R1S and R1T
The Rivian R1S and R1T. Image: Tony Harmer

Indeed, the loyalty of pickup buyers showed strongly in a recent survey by U.S. auto research and sales site Autolist.com, whose analytics team compared the consumer appeal of upcoming all-electric pickups from Ford, GM, Tesla and Rivian, after surveying over 1,100 vehicle shoppers in late November and early December. When asked which electric pickup held the most appeal, their responses were fairly close, with scores in the 20-29 per cent range. But even with little information available on the electric pickup trucks planned by GM and Ford, those two came out on top, at 29 and 27 per cent respectively. Rivian and Tesla trucks scored 24 and 20 per cent.

Greg Petti, former head of a Tesla owners club in Calgary, says most of the local folks he knows that have put down their $150 for a reservation are existing EV fans, though not all.

“I do know a couple of non-EV owners who are interested or who have already put down a deposit,” he says.

The Ford F-150 all-electric prototype

One notable response, from a “dyed-in-the-wool pickup truck driver,” was initially shock, followed by acceptance, then a decision to place a deposit. When he revealed this decision to his coworkers, Petti says, they mocked him. “Those people seem to be coming up with a variety of reasons why they wouldn’t buy a Tesla.”

Time to warm up

Most Albertans, Petti feels, are neither anti-EV or anti-Tesla, but are perhaps generally skeptical of the company and also might take some time to warm up to the Cybertruck’s radical design. “I believe many of these [people] will become converts, particularly once these trucks are showing up around town and more and more publicity builds around this truck.”

Another factor that may sway people in time is the incredible advantage the Cybertruck holds against the Ford F-150 in terms of CO2 emissions. A recent comparison of the two vehicles concluded that the gas F-150 is 100 times more polluting than the Cybertruck — if the latter is charged on a largely clean electricity grid, as enjoyed by roughly 80 per cent of Canadians.

Even on the dirtiest, most heavily coal and gas-powered electricity grid, as in Alberta, the F-150 would still produce almost twice the overall lifetime emissions than the Cybertruck, the study said.

CO2 footprint a low priority?

However, based on a sampling of reactions to the Cybertruck from Canadian pickup owners on Facebook soon after its debut, a pickup’s environmental footprint is way down the buying priority list.

“OMG it’s ugly, I’ll stick with my 2019 RAM Sport 1500,” said one Ottawa resident.

“Ugly, but those specs are amazing. And all pickup trucks are ugly — that one just in a different way,” replied someone from Windsor, N.S. “Might as well [have] the ugly triangle with the 14,000 [pound] towing and 2.9 [second] 0-60 [miles per hour] versus the ugly rectangle with less towing and slower pull.”

Amid the range of reactions, this seemed the most common. “I can’t see too many truck people abandoning their current ride for one of these,” said a Toyota Tacoma owner, who studied in Manitoba, worked mainly in Alberta, and now lives in Nanaimo, B.C. “This unit seems like too much sizzle and not enough steak.”

Power and price

Lukewarm it may be for some traditionalists, but all this does suggest that there’s an appeal for Tesla’s Cybertruck in Canada — as well as other electric pickups, especially if they offer similarly ground-breaking power and hauling at a competitive price.

With entries from GM, Ford and Rivian as well as Tesla currently slated to launch in Canada in 2022, the market for pickups, both radical and traditional, in styling and powertrain, will begin there.

From then on, the trucks’ performance, cost, infrastructure and production capabilities of each producer will help determine whether and how quickly these EVs go from minor market tremble to full on tectonic shifts.

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