Last updated on July 4th, 2020 at 03:40 pm
Can you buy an electric vehicle online? It's a simple question and one that's definitely worth an answer from the car industry. Sure, Tesla is the market leader for EVs, but it's also geared for car sales in the 21st century with hour-long test drives that you book easily via the Web. You can also check new stock, complete your order and get a delivery date. No wonder the Model 3 has been catapulted to the top of the sales charts during lockdown – almost none of Tesla's competitors were ‘ready for lockdown success'.
In this context, WhichEV wanted to find out how the other manufacturers compare. So we went undercover on your behalf, to investigate the websites, sales lines and dealers making noise about EVs. We asked the simple question: Can these car companies sell you an EV online? It was an amazing experience and certainly one that we will be doing again in six months' time, to see if there have been any improvements. The weight of expectation was on Tesla, no doubt, but at the end of the day – they didn't manage to claim ‘top spot'. Check our full report to see who managed to edge the Musk mob out of pole position.
We start our list with the companies where it was really difficult to buy an EV. Despite Kia telling us that their waiting list was up to 32 weeks, they were not actually the most challenging company to deal with.
Our scoring system gives a value to how good the web site was in guiding someone who wants to buy an EV, the experience of dealing with the sales people for each company and, finally, was it possible to buy an EV online. Scores are out of five, where five indicates near perfect execution and a one means that everything about the experience could be improved. Each image will take you to the site in question – and we encourage you to replicate our undercover experiment for yourself.
Bringing up the rear is VW. The ID range is rumoured to be using the Tesla sales model. The idea is that you will be encouraged to test drive and order without visiting a traditional VW showroom. The VW hotline were unsure about that or when orders might be taken for cars – although they did explain that pre-orders had already been taken for the ID.3. When we asked how we could pre-order, they were uncertain and said that it would happen ‘at some point' – although there was no offer to take our details and update us when it was possible to buy a new car. With sales ramping up in Germany, WhichEV is expecting UK deliveries of the ID series to start in September. Could be quite a while after that before you can go into a VW showroom (any generation) and make an immediate purchase. The website offers pretty colours, but no buy button. The sales person we spoke to was vague about everything and certainly not enthusiastic about EVs. Best way to sum up the experience? Unhelpful.
Choosing which experience came bottom was a close thing, but at least the Skoda showroom was able to point at an electric car – which puts them slightly in front of VW. Let's give you an idea of what the frustration looks like. We hit the site and it's not immediately obvious that Skoda has an electric car, but you might be lucky and guess it's the Citigoe IV. The nice graphics draw you in, but before you have a chance to scroll, you see the magic words, “This model is no longer available to order”. Er. It then lets you go through to a configurator. After picking options, it gives you a ‘code' for your car quote and you're left a little confused. That experience carried over to the sales team when we tried the dealers. We asked one if Skoda does electric cars and he replied, “What size?”. OK, we thought, there are options – we asked for a family sized car. Skoda told us they will have one, “But that model won't be available until the end of 2021”. So much for VW-Audi's push to electrification. As we were leaving, we asked, “So no EVs then?”. The chap pointed to a car in the corner and said, “That's an EV”. That was pretty much it. No follow up questions, no one asked for our details. We walked about the re-badged VW E-Up and left.
The ever-popular German car brand has a number of e-tron models. We checked with Audi HQ and were again told that there was no centralised stock system for new cars. In other words, you can't know if the e-tron you want to buy is in the UK, ready to ship, or if you will need to order a new car that needs to be built for you. We were told that there are likely to be around 70 new e-trons in the UK (specifications/locations unknown) – and that if you can't find what you want, then a new e-tron build can take up to six months. For a general feeling of hopelessness, try and buy a car here yourself. We found ourselves going round and around. There seemed to be a button missing on the site. The one that takes you into the actual buying experience. If people keep on buying cars in the traditional way, then Audi's look, feel and reputation could carry the day. Right now, people are ordering cars online that cost ‘Audi-money', but they'd only be able to order them from Tesla.
Visually appealing site, but unfortunately it's arranged by model. That means you need to know the entire range from 1 to 8 plus the Z, M and i variations. To an old school petrolhead, that might seem fine, but to someone who is new to the BMW brand, that's way too much assumed knowledge. Even if you select ‘i', you will still only get fossil-fuelled options and we could not find a ‘buy' button. Back on the home page we found a button that offered to help us locate a new car. We were presented with around 45 options, but no filter for ‘Fuel' type, so again you are left guessing. After several minutes, we realised that while there IS an option for the i3 from the home page (BMW's only pure EV option?), but the i3 seems to be missing from the actual car selector, which has two types of i8 instead. Click on the BMW image above to get a first hand look. To be honest, we found the whole process to be quite a draining experience. Given that we carried the news that Oliver Zispe was committing billions of Euros in a bid to move BMW to being an EV-focused company by 2025, there's little evidence of progress being made so far. We contacted sales and were told that they were expecting EVs “…at some point in the future”.
While the Ami is certainly an interesting product, the ‘Electric Cars‘ page on Citroen's web site is lite on pure EVs right now. Why there are big listings/images for the Berlingo Electric and C-Zero is a bit of a mystery, as both are now out of production. As we reported recently, the new e-C4 was to be fully revealed at the end June. and more details have arrived. Thankfully, there is now a page with more info, otherwise the Citroen site would have been bereft of mainstream EVs. Although the company has targeted a ‘top to bottom electric offering' by 2025, most of that remains firmly in the ‘to follow' category for now. We called Citroen's sales team a week before the e-C$ reveal and they seemed surprised that anyone was asking about electric cars.
We were told that the e-Niro is on a six-month waiting list (for a confirmed order) and the quirky-looking Soul EV is closer to 8 months. No quick drive off the forecourt in a Kia anytime soon. The sales chap we spoke to literally laughed when we asked him when he would have “stock sitting there, waiting to be bought”. There is a ‘Build‘ option, but it leads you back to the 8 month queue. Certainly there's no buy button.
Mercedes has launched an online shop that lets you search for your perfect new vehicle via the Web. In theory. In practice, we chose the ‘Electric' option and were presented with a list of more than 1,000 new vehicles. Excellent. Then we looked at the specifications. All of them were diesel. Not quite the EV-purchasing experience we were after. We wondered if it was including ‘Hybrid' models and checked the options again after clearing our cache. The ‘100% electric button' was definitely the one we pressed. Makes you wonder who signed off on this part of the site. We called the Mercedes sales hotline and explained the issue to a friendly sales assistant, who agreed that this was not correct and that she was going to flag it with HQ. We asked about the EQC and were told that no showrooms had stock, but there are a handful of demo units that tour the country for test drives – which you need to book well in advance. If you like the car, you can place an order and it will be ‘custom built' for you in a matter of weeks.
There was no immediate EV option on the MG website, although there is a configurator. Sort of. It actually lets you choose a colour, then see it from 4 angles. No internal views (as far as we could tell) and no way to complete your order online. We tried twice, burst out laughing and gave up. Quite possibly the most underwhelming site on the planet. We rang the sales line and were told that the MG ZS EV was generally built to order, although some dealers might have limited stock. We asked about lead times and were told that it was 6 months from order to delivery last year, that this had moved down to around 12 weeks, but the pandemic had caused a disruption to the supply line and we would need to confirm with a local dealer. Searches around the dealers seemed to show a dozen or so cars spread across the UK, but when we rang we were told that new stock was arriving all the time and that they should be able to satisfy most orders within two to four weeks. Short test drives (up to 3 miles) are possible, but actual demonstrators are also in short supply. We've reviewed the ZS EV and liked it a lot. Buying one online is not going to happen. If you do nothing else today, we urge you to try the MG configurator. It's very funny indeed.
Big bold graphics, video and an offer to download a price list certainly make the Mini site seem active. Plenty of pro-EV arguments, explanations of what you need to know in terms of price, spec, charging etc – all very welcome. The price list is actually a PDF brochure that tells you there are three levels of trim and a variety of colour, equipment and wheel options. Folks with a good credit rating can turn up with a deposit of £4,000 and pay £299 to £399 a month with a final payment of £10-12,000 after four years. All very understandable. Refreshingly, the configurator did end with a button that says, ‘Order'. However, pressing order, seemed to take you to a pre-order page, with the chance to pay a random £500 deposit – without providing you with a delivery date or final specification etc. We did find an online ‘New car locator‘, which told us that there were no electric minis in the UK. Searching through the dealers, we only managed to find two cars. We tried the sales line, but the person who answered had no knowledge of UK geography and suggested locations that were far away. We finally found a dealer who had test capability. After several minutes of hold music, the reception put us through to the sales team. This time we were held in silence for 3 minutes, before they answered. We were told that test drives would be solo, that we would need to bring a drivers licence, bank statement, utility bill etc – and that we would need to sign a waiver to confirm full responsibility for any incidents during the test drive. Quite draconian. We asked about purchase lead times and were told that all cars are presently custom built with a three-month wait.
Hyundai's very helpful central information service explained that there is no centralised stock information and no ‘Browse new cars that are available' button on the website. It will let you create a quote, with all the charm of a bank loan application. With a little more work, we managed to find around a dozen electric Ioniq models and almost twenty electric Konas. We have to spotlight the amazing response of the Hyundai sales line. Understanding that we were really interested in buying, they offered to take our details and call all of the sales centres around the country to give us the information we needed. Fantastic customer service level. We declined the tempting offer. If the website matched the personnel, Hyundai would be extremely competitive.
The website got out hopes up, as it appeared to offer an online browsing/shopping facility for new vehicles. We did indeed find a page, although only seven cars were listed. To confirm if there were seven cars or seven models, we made direct contact with their help line – who didn't have any information – so we tried the dealers themselves. We were told that around 30 cars are likely to be available at any one time, but that even if a car needed to be built to order, that would be quick because it happens in Sunderland. Watch out for our review of the latest Leaf – coming soon to WhichEV.
We've mentioned the Renault site in positive terms before. Alongside Peugeot and Tesla, it really is head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to a shopping experience – especially the ‘driving range calculator‘, which is worth a visit on its own. It has a virtual showroom, where you can take a tour. That said, it stops short of showing you what is in stock and actually taking your money – so not quite as complete as Peugeot/Tesla. We called Renault and tried to speak with the sales team only to discover that none of the options were specifically ‘I want to buy, please take my money'. We chose a general option ‘3' and continued on to the hold music for a while. Renault and Mini were the only call centres where we experienced an extended hold. After seven minutes of ambient sounds, we gave up and went to the main dealers. Friendly, knowledgeable and able to tap into a country-wide availability of around 60 Renault Zoe EVs. You are able to book a test drive, which will be ‘solo' and up to half an hour – with the car being sanitised before and after.
We've enjoyed the I-Pace every time we've tried it, but how long will you have to wait for one? There's a little confusion at Jaguar these days, unfortunately. While we have seen Jaguar talk about their online stock check, their systems don't have this kind of information in a centralised, easy-to-access format. You can experience this ‘almost' system in action for yourself here. We persevered, called various numbers and eventually managed to find a mixture of around 60 model S, SE and HSE cars across the country. No test drives are available as of the end of June, but the Jaguar team is expecting this test drive ban to lift before the end of July.
We made a mistake by starting with the Tesla site. It set us up to believe that car manufacturers know how to sell online in the 21st century and could deliver an enjoyable, effective, simple shopping experience. One where you could see what was available and order it. Not so. Tesla was one of the only companies to offer what regular folks ‘shopping for a new car' expect. At the time of writing, there were no Model S or Model X cars ready to ship – you would have to place a custom order – although we did find 24 new Model 3 cars, starting with a standard range model at £40,490. There's no smoother experience than getting to know a Tesla for the first time. Go online and check out the range, click existing inventory to see what's in stock and then choose a test drive. When you've decided, click the buy button. Tesla showroom staff tend to be friendly, but not technical. It's all about getting you in the seat of a car that will beat most supercars for the price of an executive saloon.
Peugeot has (almost) completely embraced the new way of doing business. Accessing the e-208 and e-2008 offers list was easy, with nine offers on the regular EVs and eight on the SUV version. With a few clicks, we had chosen a model and were given a delivery date around three weeks away. There was a whole section dedicated to online shopping, including a virtual showroom and video. We spoke to their sales team and were told that ‘available stock for new cars' is not on the web site, but they offer delivery times based on ‘orders in the pipeline'. Planners across Europe are working to ramp up the lines, in the most popular colours/specifications. Some cars could be with you in a week or two, build to order cars will take longer.
So there you have it.
Volkswagen, Audi and Skoda offered the weakest experiences – both online and in terms of their respective sales teams. Renault and Jaguar were pretty good, but Tesla and Peugeot are miles are in front right now. Special mention must be made of the Hyundai call centre lady who offered to ring every dealer in the country to get the information we needed. While it was appreciated, it should not be necessary with a competent back-end system. Also worth mentioning that you may want to think twice before agreeing to give Mini copies of your passport, bank statement and utility bills along with your driver's licence. Not sure how their GDPR and data security policies are set up, but that's an awful lot of personal data to be held indefinitely by an 3rd party.
The upshot of our investigation is that while we are well into the 21st century – with the ability to stream Hollywood blockbusters to millions of people across the country – most car companies draw a blank when you ask them if they have any cars to sell.
Not sure how many Marketing Directors/CMOs will read this, but they'd probably find it useful to repeat our exercise themselves to see just how hard some of them make ‘buying a new car'.
While American companies like Tesla have long been recognised as the overall thought/technology leaders, here at the start of the EV-era of motoring, China has been the yardstick for large-scale production and volume sales. To give you an idea of the comparative size of the EV markets, the Tesla Model 3 was the top selling EV in the UK and China for May. That was achieved with less than 900 units sales in the UK and closer to 12,000 in China.
After a short lull due to the pandemic, the Chinese were back up and running at serious levels of production. Attracting that level of sales in the West would not only mean having a good product, but also offering cars at a much more competitive price and in a way that makes it easy to close the sale and drive away in the EV of your dreams. The online purchase process needs to improve and improve quickly as we all adapt to the new normal.