We Buy the Car They Tell Us to Buy

17 August 2023

Free will and the right to choose are not dead, but they are elusive when buying or leasing a hybrid car in California.

I’ve just emerged from a two-year journey to replace our 2016 Toyota Prius. In the beginning of my search, a chip shortage and supply chain problems made it hard to get a new Prius. I tried dealer after dealer in the Southern California region and all had no inventory. They said Toyota gave them a limited allocation of cars; very few were Priuses.

I told the dealers that I was willing to compromise, to go for a lower-level model than I already had. I would go for a RAV4 Hybrid, even though it was an SUV and the fuel efficiency wasn’t as good as the Prius. I put down a $1000 deposit and told my local dealer that I’d wait for Toyota to ship over a RAV4 and then I would come in and lease it.

I waited six weeks. When I called the dealership, the salesperson said the car I wanted wasn’t available and invited me to look at other cars on the lot. They asked if I really wanted a hybrid? Was I sure? I said I was.

This was going nowhere. I tried a broader search. I drove to the San Fernando Valley to look at a Kia Niro. They had no hybrid cars in stock. Maybe some would come in next year, they said. I called local and not so local Subaru dealerships to see if they had inventory in hybrids or plug-in hybrids. They didn’t. I was ready to fly to Pennsylvania to get a plug-in hybrid Subaru and hire someone to drive it home. The dealer told me that the car, which I intended to take camping, didn’t have a spare tire. It had an inflation kit, instead. It seemed stupid to me that a vehicle meant for rough roads didn’t have a spare tire. My crazy scheme to get that car (and release a lot of carbon to do it) collapsed.

I will not get a Tesla because the owner of the company has proven himself to be a bully and an erratic, abusive manager.

Along this journey, something else struck me as crazy. (And this is when this essay turns away from guy complaining about his car buying experience” into something deeper.)

It was crazy that Toyota, which pioneered the hybrid car experience in America, apparently didn’t have any hybrids to sell. I was an early adopter of the Prius. On March 20, 2003, when George W. Bush announced that the U.S. was invading Iraq, I went to an antiwar rally as soon as I could and then I went out and bought a Prius. It was virtue signaling, sure, but I wanted to lower my dependence on fossil fuel. For the next twenty years, when my lease was up or the car paid off, I bought or leased a Prius. I was a loyal Toyota customer.

Then I realized that Toyota, a pioneer of the mainstream hybrid experience in America, wasn’t all that interested in selling me a hybrid. I read that they were slowing down their development of electric cars. They said they weren’t ready to enter the market. I saw that they were fighting fuel efficiency regulations in California. Something was wrong. I wondered if they weren’t making hybrids because they wanted to steer me to something else. It wasn’t a supply chain problem, as the salespeople told me. It was Toyota deciding for me what I could buy. They wanted to get more mileage out of fossil fuels and I was their pawn in the game.

This made me mad. In 2003, before I discovered that I could get a Prius at a Hollywood dealership, I called dealer after dealer, looking for electrics or hybrids. I considered an electric Ford Ranger, but few were available, and I looked at converting an internal combustion car to electric. I found a company that would modify a Karmann Ghia to run on batteries. It was experimental and I wasn’t sure that it would be reliable. Toyota seemed like a heroic company when I bought that first Prius. I’d read they were taking a loss on each Prius made.

I’ve come to realize, though, that manufacturers here in the U.S. talk a lot of noise about energy efficiency and hybrids and all that, but only a few are committed to moving away from fossil fuels. Fossil fuels will be in their business model for a long time.

What companies will move away? Here’s my short list. Tesla is committed to electric vehicles, obviously. Ford appears committed. They want the electric F-150 Lightning to be a success. Volvo seems committed. Kia is committed but inventory is low. Volvo is committed. VW, Audi, and BMW are committed, though their vehicles are expensive. There is an electric Jeep with a long waiting list to get one. Lexus is just kidding; their hybrids deliver the fuel efficiency of a gas car but they carry a hybrid label to make you feel better about it.

My patience wearing down, I checked with BMW and they said I would have to wait six months for their new model electric sedan to be delivered. They had one vehicle on the lot to test drive. Volkswagen could order me an ID4, their electric vehicle, but they had none to test drive. I would have to buy it without driving it first. The electric Ford Mustang was out of my price range. There was a wait for them, anyway. Were these manufacturers just testing the market, or our patience, to see just how badly we wanted to go electric or hybrid?

I hadn’t completely sold my wife on the idea of going all-electric, anyway. We live in a building with a shared garage; we have no secure way to charge here. She was concerned about the range.

Our old car was only getting older and about to give up. Its trade-in value also was diminishing.

During one weekend internet search I saw that Audi was offering a plug-in hybrid Q5. I called the dealer and they had a few in stock. The next day, we went over to that local dealer and leased one.

It is fun to drive, well made, but far from perfect. It gets 40 mpg in hybrid mode, about the same as the RAV4, and its all-electric range is just 30 miles. (Teslas and Audi e-tron electrics get more than 200 miles on a charge.) We charge our Audi at public charging stations in the neighborhood.

Our next car will be electric all the way, not a hybrid. I’m sure there will be more charging stations and more options when our current lease is up.

I drive by the local Toyota dealer sometimes. There are plenty of big trucks for sale on their lot. They are still pushing their hydrogen-fueled Mirai. But if you want a hybrid, or an electric car, they have other plans for you. It’s obvious to me now that there is a plan in place at Toyota: Move the customer away from hybrids by saying there aren’t any on the lot; ship just a few so buyers have to compete for what shows up, and force them to pay higher prices for those vehicles they are competing for.

Any car manufacturer that is not aggressively pursuing hybrid or electric technology, or limiting our access to those technologies, wants to extend our dependence on fossil fuels. No matter what they say otherwise. The rest is just marketing talk.

(c) Lee Schneider 2023. Take care of each other. Subscribe.