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Toronto electric-vehicle showroom focuses on education, not sales

GLOBE DRIVE

A crash course in electric cars

Cara Clairman, president of the Electric Vehicle Discovery Centre in Vaughan, Ont., stands outside the non-profit’s retail location on Monday. The centre officially opens next week.

An Ontario non-profit will open the world's first electric-vehicle experiential showroom next week in North Toronto

Long curious about electric cars, Vanessa Gregoris bought not one, but two battery-powered vehicles last month. And while she went to a pair of dealerships to pay for them, neither actually sold them to her.

Credit for clinching the deal goes to Plug'n Drive, an Ontario-based non-profit organization that will open the world's first electric-vehicle experiential showroom next week in North Toronto. Called the Electric Vehicle Discovery Centre (EVDC), the innovative space is one part science centre and one part automotive showroom. There is a catch, though: Despite having a lineup of sleek, new EVs for consumers to see and drive, nothing here is for sale. Instead, the EVDC is designed to deliver pressure-free EV education to potential buyers, from the most basic of introductions to calculations on gas savings, and selecting the model that best suits a particular lifestyle.

Tours end with the pièce de résistance: actual test drives of a range of plug-in vehicles, some of which may be available for multiday tests. There is no other place in Canada where drivers can go for unbiased, live, side-by-side comparisons of new EVs from competing manufacturers.

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For Gregoris, who, like several hundred more curious drivers, stopped by the EVDC while it was in soft-launch mode last month, the test drive was the deal-maker. "I wouldn't have purchased an EV if I wasn't able to test drive it first," she said. "When you go to dealerships, they don't even have a model to show you. That's the problem. Sure, you can see it on the Internet. But I wanted to physically see the vehicles and drive them."

The discovery centre doesn't officially open to the public until next week. For Plug'n Drive chief executive Cara Clairman, the early interest – dealers are already sending customers in need of EV education to the facility – adds up to validation for the novel bricks-and-mortar concept, which was several years in the making.

"There is a real pent-up demand for EVs. People are starting to realize EVs aren't just for wealthy people. They aren't just for techie people," Clairman said. "People are really interested. But there is just nowhere to go to ask questions. No one else will hold your hand through this. Now, we can."

While Plug'n Drive stops short of actually retailing vehicles (although it does sell home chargers), its mandate is to put more green cars on the road in line with Ontario's Climate Change Action Plan. As part of it, the government would like EVs to make up 5 per cent of total vehicle sales by 2020. The number currently hovers around 1 per cent, and there are about 10,000 EVs on provincial roads.

Numbers are climbing, but the rise has not been speedy. Dealers themselves have been slow to adopt and promote EVs. Reasons for this are myriad. Barriers include the fact that it often takes much longer to sell an EV owing to buyer uncertainty. Studies in both the United States and Canada have documented cases of salespeople trying to talk prospective buyers out of an EV and into a gas car. Data collected by Plug'n Drive in 2014 found that only 38 per cent of EV-certified dealers had a floor model. Many of those were not available for test drives. Nearly half of the dealers surveyed that year did not even have an EV on their lot.

While Ontario offers rich incentives to EV buyers – you can get up to $14,000 back on a new EV – buyers have concerns that need to be addressed before they are willing to take the plunge.

Fuelled by sponsorships from several auto makers, the Ontario government, Ontario Power Generation and several other backers, Plug'n Drive will aim to fill that gap. General Motors, BMW, Nissan, Ford and Mitsubishi have donated test models; negotiations with more auto makers, including Tesla and Volkswagen, are continuing.

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"It's a super initiative," said David Paterson, vice-president of corporate and environmental affairs at GM Canada. A collaborative approach that unites auto makers, government stakeholders and advocates of EV technology will be key to increasing the number of vehicles on the road, he said.

At the EVDC, staff are equipped to answer a huge range of questions about battery life, gas savings, range anxiety, the impact of weather on range, electricity prices, chargers and more. When Gregoris arrived at the EVDC, she had a list of concerns. After just an hour – and a test drive – she was not only informed: She was convinced.

On her way home, Gregoris stopped by the Tesla store. There, she put down a $1,000 deposit on the company's new Model 3, a long-range, low-cost vehicle that could land on Canadian roads in about a year's time. Next, she went to a Nissan dealership and placed an order for a battery-powered Leaf that will arrive in a few weeks. It cost her about $22,000 after taxes and rebates. The purchase, though, was not without hiccups.

"Even when I went to the dealership, I felt I was educating them," she said.

For Clairman, that means her staff did their job.

"After people come in, they feel inspired," she said. "Each car really has its unique benefits. Come here and you'll find there's an EV for everyone."

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Along with showroom models of electric vehicles that visitors can actually test-drive, Plug’n Drive’s new experiential showroom also has electric chargers for show – and for sale.


Three myths about electric vehicles

You have to be rich to own one. There are more than 20 EV models available in the Canadian market, Clairman says, and many are affordable vehicles that offer increasingly long range. Chevrolet's Bolt, which can go more than 380 kilometres on a full battery charge, arrived in dealerships earlier this year. Its price tag, after rebates and taxes, is in the low $30,000-range.

You'll never have enough range. The arrival of new long-range, low-cost models in the market, combined with the fact that Ontario is midway through its installation of a province-wide fast-charging network, means that charging on-the-go is getting easier. "I really believe that in a couple of years the concept of range anxiety will be gone," Clairman said.

Electricity is pricier than gas. "People see headlines all the time about how expensive gas is," Clairman said. "But few people actually do the math on how much they really spend." Plug'n Drive's calculations show that most people spend $2,500 to $3,000 per year on gas. Those who switch to electric spend about $500 to fuel their vehicle.

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