Modern Mechanics

Dealerships gear up to service alternative-fuel vehicles.

Steve Finlay, Senior Editor

February 1, 2011

7 Min Read
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Some dealers can't wait to sell electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids and the like to consumers interested in emerging alterative powertrains.

But megadealer Mike Jackson can't wait to start servicing such vehicles.

“Thank God we like challenges, because fixing these vehicles will require special training and special tools, and dealerships excel at that,” says Jackson, CEO of AutoNation Inc., the largest dealership chain in the U.S.

“Taking on this complexity and serving our customers are things we know how to do best,” he says. “The only ones who can handle it, tool up for it and meet the challenge are authorized dealers.”

Independent auto shops eventually will catch up with the servicing of alternative-powertrain vehicles, “but right now it's a whole new ball game, with dealers having the edge,” Jackson tells Ward's.

As rarely before seen in the auto-dealer world, salespersons and technicians are being challenged to sell and service cars with vastly different technologies than the internal-combustion engines that have prevailed for more than a century.

The new technology is “something that happens once in a hundred years,” says Jackson, who started in the auto industry as a Mercedes-Benz dealership mechanic.

He eventually went on to run a Mercedes dealership, then serve as president of Mercedes-Benz USA before becoming head of AutoNation.

“Servicing these advanced-technology vehicles will certainly require a new skill set, but I applaud auto makers for really emphasizing and providing the training,” says dealer Robert Thibodeau of Bob Thibodeau Ford in Center Line, MI.

He and fellow Ford dealers will start selling the Focus EV later this year.

Auto-technician students at New York training center’s fifth-anniversary gathering.

“A lot of the technician training is online, rather than having to send them to classes,” Thibodeau says. “The online training is huge. There's also the ability to talk to hot lines. The manufacturers have really stepped up on training.”

He doesn't anticipate major issues in servicing vehicles with alternative-fuel engines. When hybrids first debuted in the U.S. 11 years ago, some detractors predicted they would be hard to fix.

“But servicing hybrids hasn't been difficult,” Thibodeau says. “They are relatively easy to work on.”

They also have proven to be durable despite initial speculation about the cost of potentially premature battery replacements, says David Champion, head of Consumer Reports magazine's automotive test center.

EVs and hybrids get their share of attention at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. introduced three new versions of its Prius hybrid, including smaller and larger models than the existing midsize sedan. Also shown is a Prius hybrid plug-in that goes on sale next year.

The Chevrolet Volt extended-range EV won the North American Car of the Year award at the show.

The Volt and Nissan Leaf EV, together, have received more plaudits than expected, creating buzz in showrooms where the oft-asked question is, “When are you going to get one?”

Dealers are getting their sales and service staffs up to speed on electric-powertrain technology — sales people, so they can respond knowledgeably to inquiries; service technicians so they can service vehicles such as the Volt, Leaf and upcoming EV versions of the Ford Focus, Smart Fortwo, Mini Cooper and Mitsubishi iMiEV.

“We've got to be able to provide answers to customers who want an EV,” says Jeff Cappo, owner of 17 Nissan, Toyota and Honda stores in Michigan and Tennessee. “The Insight and Civic Hybrid are our new-tech small cars at the Honda dealerships, but the Leaf is giving them a run.”

He adds: “We're prepping our sales, Internet and service teams for clarifying calls and inquiries, especially reassuring them on range-anxiety issues.”

Cappon is ordering charging terminals at his stores, “because they'll be a drawing card as e-cars spread across the country.

It is a growing movement.

For example, Chrysler Group LLC's Jeep division is contemplating the possibility of a hybrid or pure-electric vehicle, CEO and President Mike Manley tells Ward's.

But while an electric model would be a good way to help meet strict government-mandated fuel-economy regulations, Manley says it's more important to maintain Jeep's rugged off-road reputation.

He sees “plenty of opportunities” to integrate an electrified powertrain into a Jeep model, citing the ability to tap into partner Fiat Group Automobiles SpA's resources.

“Electric technology for Jeeps, with their capability, may be tougher to do, but it's something we continue to monitor,” he says. “As I look out to the future, Jeep will certainly be competitive in those areas when the marketplace is completely ready for it.”

General Motors Co. Chariman and CEO Dan Akerson says the auto maker plans to electrify at least one product at each of its four brands, and the Cadillac SRX will likely be home to a plug-in hybrid juggled between brands over the last few years.

“It's likely,” Akerson says of plan to electrify the Cadillac SRX.

GM has been trying to find a cross/utility vehicle for its plug-in hybrid electric-vehicle technology, introduced at the Detroit auto show in 2007, since it decided to kill the Saturn brand.

Buick became a candidate, but GM scrapped that idea after the car performed poorly in customer clinics. Cadillac emerged at last year year's Detroit show as a potential destination with XTS concept car.

Micky Bly, who heads all hybrid and electrification programs at GM, confirmed to Ward's a CUV has been identified for the system.

“We're going to go into production with it; we are going to have it,” Bly says. “(The plug-in hybrid technology) has a home. It will probably be at a more premium brand.”

Bly says the system will provide a 50%-75% improvement in fuel economy over a standard hybrid. He stops short of giving a timetable but says it will arrive before the end of 2012.

Akerson says he wants to increase production this year of the Chevy Volt extended-range vehicle from 15,000 units to 25,000.

“We don't want to miss the opportunity,” he says.

Still, there is much speculation that, for all the attention EVs and advanced hybrids get, they only will attract a limited number of customers for the time being.

Jackson cites surveys in which many consumers express a willingness to buy fuel-efficient green vehicles. But he views those polls skeptically.

“We have customers that, if you give them an illuminated cupholder that heats and cools beverages, they'll give up five miles per gallon,” he says.

He likens dealerships selling both conventional and alternative-fuel vehicles to a donut shop selling donuts and broccoli. “Five percent of your customers may buy broccoli, but the rest are going to get donuts. So we may have some difficulty selling fuel-efficient small cars.”

But many industry and government leaders see the alternative-fuel vehicles as playing a big part in getting auto makers to meet federally mandated average fuel-economy targets of 35.5 mpg (6.6L/100km) by 2016.

“We have to rethink powertrain,” says Eri Fedewa, director-global powertrain and component forecasts for the consultancy IHS Automotive.

Although much of the U.S. fuel-efficiency movement touts energy conservation and cleaner air, “this is about energy security, about using resources within your economy,” he says. “It is being sold as saving the planet, which is great, but it mainly is about money and job growth.”

The Washington Auto Show once again hosted a Green Car Summit in which panelists discussed how available and developing technologies can help the nation achieve petroleum independence.

EVs were slated as a major topic of discussion “a reflection of the tremendous effort now being made to develop and sell battery electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids and conventional hybrids using electric drive,” says panel moderator, Ron Cogan, editor and publisher of the Green Car Journal.

– With James Amends, Byron Pope and Mac Gordon.

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