Buying an Electric Vehicle Mail Order: Or Why we bought our Leaf from Petaluma and Not Bakersfield

By Paul Gipe

Ok, it wasn’t quite mail order. Most of the transaction was done over the phone and via email, but we bought a car, an Electric Vehicle (EV), in a very untraditional manner.

To back up a step, we bought a 2015 Nissan Leaf in October of 2014. We’d spent several months pondering the purchase, whether we should or shouldn’t, what options to include, where’d we put it, where’d we charge it and so on ad infinitum. Next to buying a house, there’s no more significant purchase for most middle-class families. We were no different, except that I viewed the process as a form of entertainment—a distraction from 12-hour days working on a new book.

We bought an EV in part to learn more about the technology and in part to do our part to push the technology forward. Toward that end, we wanted to buy our EV locally. We support local vendors whenever we can. We’re the type that tries to buy our products “Made in USA” or “Fait au Canada,” so we go the extra mile.

As part of my research, I’d scoured the My Nissan Leaf forum where there are specific discussions devoted solely to buying a car and the deals being offered. Nissan salesmen regularly posted their offers on the site and explained what was included and what was not. This is quite a contrast to days of yore when such transactions where negotiated in a Spartan cubicle at the dealership. And when a customer of one of these transactions wasn’t happy, everyone knew about it immediately. It was all public: the price, the deal, the result.

The bottom line is I knew what others were buying Leafs for with the option we wanted (base model with quick charger). So I sent off a query off to our local dealer. That in itself was a first—asking the local dealer for a quote on line. Of course, I found that they don’t really give you a quote, at least not the local dealer. They telephoned and set up an appointment and test drive.

We told the salesman what we wanted and we took a test drive in what they had. Then we went into that cubicle to discuss it. First, they’d have to find what we wanted. Then they’d have to see if they could get it. “Can you wait a few minutes?” he asked. A “few minutes” stretched into ten, then twenty and I was getting antsy.

All I wanted was the price. After a while I tracked our salesman down and told him we wouldn’t wait any longer, make us an offer. He hemmed and hawed but finally made an offer. They were not even close.

I’d made it clear that I work with energy and was researching EVs and that I’d spent a lot of time reviewing other offers on line. That had no effect. He said he could get a car for us but we’d have to pay shipping. Of course, if we bought an EV from another dealer we’d have to pay shipping to Bakersfield. That’s a given with today’s EVs.

We left the dealer but assured the salesman we’d give him every opportunity to close the deal. I figured this is just the way dealers act. Buying a new car isn’t something we do very often and we were not aware how the car buying market is changing—or has changed.

I then learned from our accountant that we couldn’t buy an EV. That was a shock, and the subject of a future article. We’d have to lease instead and leave the federal subsidy for Nissan to claim.

It was back to My Nissan Leaf forum to learn about leases, the pitfalls to avoid, the deals out there, and who was offering what in California. It was then that I saw a forum member in San Diego had leased a leaf to replace one that was crushed under a fallen tree (you can’t make this stuff up). He included a picture of an auto trailer unloading his brand new Leaf from North Bay Nissan in Petaluma—500 miles from San Diego. He not only posted the details of his lease but also the cost of transport. The Leaf arrived just as promised. The entire transaction was done by email and Fed-Ex. He was happy. The Leaf was exactly as he ordered.

I was impressed.

I went on line and North Bay Nissan had exactly the model we were looking for, so I sent them a request for a quote. The emailed me immediately with an approximate quote for a lease. (Nothings firm until it’s printed on the contract.) Victor Maldonado then called and we walked through what we wanted. He reiterated what he thought the lease would be and estimated the shipping charges to Bakersfield ($500).

I then contacted several other dealers that were offering on line quotes, including another in the Bay area. The other Bay Area dealer would meet North Bay Nissan’s quote and they had a lot of satisfied customers on the My Nissan Leaf forum—as did North Bay.

In the meantime the local dealer had contacted me again and tried to sell us one of their gasoline-powered products. They just didn’t seem to get it that we wanted the EV and only the EV. I told him that I’d never been on a Nissan lot before and until that day we walked in Nissan never had any products that interested us. (Well, OK, the Datsun 510 was quite a car, but that was long ago in a galaxy far away, and yes that does date me.)

The local salesmen asked to see the quotes I was getting from the others. As I said, I wanted to be fair to the local dealer so I kept them fully informed of the offers. They called back a few times and made new offers, but they really didn’t budge much. I had the impression that they really didn’t care if they sold us an EV or not.

Finally, I told the local dealer I was willing to pay a premium to buy from them but they had to at least be in the ball park. I was after all willing to at least give them the $500 shipping cost. Nothing. They just wouldn’t or couldn’t match North Bay. They wanted nearly $2,000 more than North Bay over the life of the lease, including the shipping. That was just too much of premium for us to buy local.

 We went with North Bay. Victor walked us through the process over the telephone. He’d express down the paperwork and then we’d Fed-Ex it back with a down payment.

Remember, we’re buying a car unseen—unless you count a picture of it on their web site. The key to us was the inclusion of the quick charger. That’s a $2,000 value and frankly I was worried that the difference in the price between the local dealer and North Bay was the cost of the charger and that somehow North Bay would ship us a car without the quick charger—or without wheels, or without something.

Of course, we’d have to sign for the car when it arrives to take delivery. Technically, we had an out. Still when there’s a tractor trailer parked on the street and the driver has just unloaded your car it would be hard to say, “Whoa, that’s not what I ordered.”

I contacted the San Diego Leafer (that’s what they call themselves) and he said it was all true. He got what he ordered. Period. No funny stuff.

Victor tried to reassure me by giving me the VIN, the Vehicle Identification Number. Amazingly, you can look that up and find exactly what model it is and where it is. I learned that indeed it was a real car. But the VIN info didn’t say whether it had the quick charger, though it did have four wheels. There remained a degree of trust in the transaction.

We dutifully filled out all the paperwork and sent it along with our check up to North Bay. They called when they had received the package and the check cleared to schedule delivery.

They did try to sell us a tinting service, but we declined. We never use tinting and that was the only untoward part of the experience. One firm no and they didn’t try to sell us anything more.

We expected delivery mid week. Instead, we got a call on a Monday morning from the driver at a truck stop in Sacramento asking where we wanted the car delivered. Actually, he was calling to suggest where to meet him. He wanted to drop it off on the street in front of the local Nissan dealer, since that was easy for him to find.

I was a little uncomfortable with that idea, but if it made the delivery driver’s life easier I was OK with that.

My fears never materialized. The trucker delivered the car in front of the Toyota dealer and when we pulled up it was already on the street—and it had all four wheels. After a round of introductions, I popped the charge port access door, opened the cover on the DC quick charge port and it was there as promised.

We signed the paperwork, picked up the keys and became lessees of a 2015 Leaf. It was the simplest car buying experience of our lives. No haggling. No last minute changes in the order or in the offer. North Bay delivered just as they said they would on the phone, by email, and by the lease contract.

Since then, I’ve seen some other auto dealers advertising a “no haggling” policy. It seems to be a trend that started a few years ago and is gaining steam. Many of the denizens on the My Nissan Leaf forum have bought or leased their EVs this way.

Buying an EV by mail order worked for us. It gave us the best deal—and in the process it also gave us the simplest transaction. We’ve had no complaints, and we drive the Leaf everywhere within its range. It’s our go to vehicle.