For this climate-change professional, the biggest challenge of buying an EV in the COVID-era was not the pandemicOpinion
May 6, 2020
Alex Chapman

Alex Chapman, executive director of Our Energy Guelph, experienced firsthand the lack of availability of new EVs and, by crossing provincial borders, overcame a salesperson’s “bait-and-switch tactic” to go gas instead

Trina Chapman, the wife of the author of this article, following the couple’s successful purchase of a Hyundai Kona EV

Alex Chapman, executive director of Our Energy Guelph, experienced firsthand the lack of availability of new EVs and, by crossing provincial borders, overcame a salesperson’s “bait-and-switch tactic” to go gas instead  

This story is a small one, insignificant compared to a worldwide emergency, a candle compared to the noonday sun. This is not a story of woe; my family has been lucky, virtually untouched by the pandemic. It is, rather, a vignette of how everyday life — the act of buying a car; in this case, our first electric vehicle — has been changed by COVID-19.

My job is to fight climate change — specifically, to make the city of Guelph, Ont., net zero carbon by 2050 if not sooner. I keenly feel the need to set an example. “Be the change that you wish to see in the world,” Mahatma Gandhi urged. When I moved from a countryside hamlet into the city five years ago, one reason was to heed Gandhi’s plea. Soon after, we were a two-car family no more. I’d traded in my Mazda 3 for a bike, and given up dodging impatient country road drivers for weaving around geese (and their droppings) on the bike path in Riverside Park.

Not enough.

Every time I fired up the engine, I winced.
Every time I filled the tank, I grieved.

Alex Chapman

Part of the problem

Every time I looked at our remaining vehicle, an aging Toyota Sienna minivan, I cringed. Every time I fired up the engine (which was seldom, since my wife, Trina, is the driver of our household now), I winced. Every time I filled the tank, I grieved. I was still part of the problem.

However, it’s a tough call to cut and run. We came close last year, after test driving a Nissan Leaf at the Plug ‘n’ Drive Electric Vehicle (EV) Discovery Centre in Toronto. We learned that you could get a $1,000 incentive for buying a used EV — a more realistic proposition than a new Leaf, and much more realistic than a Tesla Model Y (my wife’s dream car). However, we loved the look of the new model year Leaf and hated the old. It would be quite a while before any of the former appeared in Auto Trader, so we would wait.

Fate intervened.

Alex Chapman Guelph
The author of this article, Alex Chapman

In March, our van was written off in a minor parking lot mishap. We found ourselves plunged into the car market just as a plague descended to Earth.

To keep us mobile while we shopped for a replacement, our insurer provided a rental car. It was a Hyundai Kona, a cute crossover and a relatively new kid on the automotive block. My wife loved it. She spoke idly of getting one instead of another minivan — most of our brood had left the nest, after all — but when she learned there was an electric version, the talk went from idle to high gear. 

She read reviews praising the Kona EV as a crowning engineering achievement and naming it “Leaf Killer,” and she was sold. She started shopping, vowing to score a sweet deal and hop right out of the rented gasmobile Kona into our very own battery electric one. We saw an ad posted by a dealership in Burlington, less than an hour away. It was exactly what we wanted, so we booked a test drive, and made the trip.

First drive a delight

The test drive was a dream. I decided to check out the acceleration as we headed down a highway on-ramp, and it was peppy enough that my wife squawked my name in alarm. Changing lanes was a delight. The car felt glued to the road, since the batteries — the majority of the vehicle’s weight — are distributed along the underside, making it very bottom heavy. The minimal sound it made was straight out of Star Trek. While stopped at a traffic light, we were acutely aware of the engine rumble from a car beside us — not Cousin Cleetus in his rusty jalopy, but the late model Lexus SUV that seems to be standard issue in affluent Burlington. Most of the test drive was reserved for my wife. She loved it, especially the one-pedal driving that you can do when you amp up the regenerative braking. We were ready to sign a deal on the spot.

Not so fast.

“By seeing the ad [for an EV] and thinking the dealer actually had one available to purchase, we were being hopelessly naive.”

Alex Chapman

Year-long waiting list

Shopping for an EV is not like shopping for an internal combustion engine vehicle, we soon learned. Apparently, by seeing the ad and thinking the dealer actually had one available to purchase, we were being hopelessly naive. The salesman, standing several COVID-respectful paces across the showroom, explained that the waiting list was over a year long. He’d be pleased to take our order of course, but wouldn’t we much prefer to have the gas version and drive it off the lot then and there?

It was the classic bait-and-switch tactic. Tease the customer with pictures of the car they want, entice them into the showroom and offer a test drive. Then, when they decide to buy, act surprised and explain that, of course, the one they just drove is already sold. Oh, good heavens no, the waiting list for their dream car is two human gestation cycles long. But wait, great news, we have one that’s almost the same, right here on the lot! It runs on gasoline, but everything else is identical. And you’re in luck, we have a special zero-percent financing if you sign today!

Fortunately, we had a line on another Kona EV — an honest-to-goodness, lightly used, on the lot, ready to be bought, non-phantasmal Kona EV. It was the exact trim and colour we wanted. The only hitch: the dealer was in Edmonton and the car would have to be shipped.

Kicking tires, remotely

The Edmonton dealership experience was Burlington’s polar opposite. Their sales agent made a complete walk-around-walk-through video and posted it on YouTube. They gave us the complete run-down on the prior owners, who decided they just weren’t ready for an EV after putting barely enough mileage on the vehicle to go to Calgary and back. The dealer organized the shipping. The document signing was a headache — clearly, and understandably, they were far more used to doing that in person — but before too long it was all settled.

The shipping took far longer than we expected, owing to pandemic-caused delays. More than a month later, we worked through the bureaucratic headaches of registering an out-of-province vehicle, and proudly took ownership of our new Kona — which Trina promptly christened “Karma.” I keep expecting the honeymoon to come to an end, but it hasn’t yet; every time she drives it, she comes back with another delight-filled story of some extra feature that shows how much care the designers had put into it.

We’re not out of the pandemic woods yet. But at least we’ve graduated from the fossil-fuelled driving era, and that’s cause for celebration.

Alex Chapman

Alex Chapman is the Executive Director of Our Energy Guelph, a not-for-profit enterprise created in 2019 to guide the city of Guelph toward its goal of becoming a net zero carbon community by 2050.

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