Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Toyota Snags a RAV4 EV

The storyline is meant to be changing. From Who Killed the Electric Car? to Who Revived the Electric Car? Now that automakers seem to be reevaluating plug-in cars, you'd think the era of automakers taking extraordinary steps to keep electric cars from private ownership would be over. You'd be wrong. As GM talks up the Volt, it ensures EV1s at museums and universities not be returned to the road as electric cars. As Toyota gets headlines for suggesting it will offer a few fleets a few plug-in hybrids in 3 or 4 years, it does what it can to take the myth-busting RAV4 EV out of private hands.

In mid-January a 2002 RAV4 EV south of San Francisco came to the end of its five year lease. The leaseholder chose not to buy out the lease, and returned the electric car to the dealer. Very few RAV4 EVs have been returned to the dealer when the lease ends. Most people have been so pleased with their electric Toyota that they choose to buy the car outright. Some, recognizing the market for the cars, pay the $27,000 balance only to turn around and eBay the car, earning a quick $5,000 to$15,000. Why this leaseholder simply turned in his electric car to his Toyota dealer is unknown.

But Eric Doebert, a salesman at Magnussen Toyota in Palo Alto, knew there was still interest in the car. The dealership did well with the RAV4 EV during the brief period it was offered, selling twenty one of the $42,000 electric SUVs. And as soon as the word got out that a used RAV4 EV had been returned and would be offered for sale, the calls of interest began to pile up. Ordinarily when a leased car is returned the dealer gets first dibs - if they choose they can buy the car and sell it.

Since no leased RAV4 EV had ever been returned to the Palo Alto dealer, Doebert was unprepared for Toyota's unusual next steps. The Toyota computer had a block on the car - the dealer couldn't buy the car. The dealer wanted to work out something with Toyota due to the great interest in the car. They simply wanted to do a little business, sell the used electric car. But Toyota refused. I know that at least once before a leased car was returned to another dealer, and ultimately that RAV4 EV was resold to a private party. Apparently Toyota decided that would not happen again.

So just before closing time on Thursday January 24th, without any notice and after the sales and used car staff had left, Toyota corporate in San Ramon sent two of its agents to retrieve the car. The lot boy gave up the keys, and the staff returned the next morning to find a good sale on a great Toyota had been denied them by Toyota.

The situation isn't as bad as it might have been. Toyota agreed with Plug In America in 2005 to stop destroying RAV4 EVs, and I trust that this car will remain "in service." But it won't be driving around the San Francisco Bay Area, taking someone to work, some kids to school, heightening interest in plug in cars and proving the viability of electric cars. RAV4 EVs in private hands prove daily that electric cars are not dead yet.