Oil-bought politicians, Tesla shorts, online trolls, and others with an axe to grind against EVs are always telling us things like “EVs are toys for the rich” — whenever convenient to their arguments. While it’s true that top-of-the-line Tesla vehicles are well over $100,000, there’s a small independent dealer in conservative Arizona proving that not only can EVs be affordable, but they are good for business!
This is the story of Red Rock Automotive, a used car dealer in Tempe, Arizona.
The first time I saw Red Rock, I was driving up Scottsdale Road with my partner. She invented a game like the “slug bug” game, where you punch other occupants of your vehicle for each Volkswagen Beetle you see. Instead of a punch, I got a small, shaky poke and a buzzing sound for each Nissan LEAF she saw. In other words, you get “zapped.” The first LEAF earns the letter L. The second one earns an E, and so on. When all four letters are earned, the loser is “electrocuted” and the game starts over. It was pretty rare to see four LEAFs on one drive, but that night, I lost twice in just a few seconds.
We drove by Red Rock Automotive, and out front they had a row of at least 10 Nissan LEAFs for sale, all proudly displayed up front, close to the main road. I knew that there were a lot more EVs in the Phoenix metro area than in El Paso or Albuquerque, but I had no idea that the market had developed to this point anywhere in the Southwest.
A few days later, I went in to check it out, and met the owner: Mike Sargent. I was there to talk to him about a regional EV club I was trying to start at the time, and was even more pleasantly surprised. Many small car lot owners put off a Harry Wormwood vibe (the dad from the movie Matilda), but Mike was nothing like that. He was very down to earth, conversational, and seemed like a genuinely nice guy who wasn’t just looking to get his hand in my wallet.
Not only did he stock a variety of low-priced EVs, but he offered free EV charges for people needing it and was happy to educate people coming in about EVs, even if it was pretty clear that they weren’t buying a car today.
Getting Into the Used EV Market
“I have been in the auto industry for nearly 19 years. I have seen the highs and the lows. However, lower priced EVs is a target market that creates a nice volume for us as a small independent dealer,” he told me, when I asked about the business of selling EVs. “Today, the demand for an electric car is greater than it ever has been.”
Mike did acknowledge that EV-friendly laws in Arizona are a factor. Not only are there huge breaks on registration and taxes for EVs (ending this year), but alternative fuel cars get a special “Clean Air – Blue Skies” plate that allows HOV lane access with just the driver. About that, he said, “From a personal standpoint I really like the fact that I am helping one client to another go green. Although buyer motivation in Arizona is to get HOV access, at least I can take one gas car off the road.”
Throughout my conversations and emails with him, it was pretty clear that Mike cares a lot about the environment. At least twice, he was telling me about single-use plastics and the negative impacts they can have on the environment. About that, he said, “We are too far advanced of a society to not make the minor adjustments that can severely impact the wealth of livelihood. Owning an EV car clearly is one big step closer to a better society and a better way of life.”
I asked him about the challenges, and he said, “I think it is important to know that if you really try hard to understand what makes selling EV cars unique, then it really isn’t much of a challenge. I have been in this market for a long time, and one thing I have learned is that the buyers are what makes this market change. As the buyers change, the client experience changes. We have major steps to take in order to really achieve what it takes to offer a truly unique experience. All in all, it really takes someone who cares for what they do and what they believe in.”
In sum, the market was ready for affordable EVs, but nobody was putting in the effort and putting the cars out in front of buyers. After they learn of the advantages and enjoy the better driving experience, the cars find people who don’t need a very hard push to go ahead and buy.
“It really isn’t much of a challenge to present them and give people a wonderful experience on them.”
I assumed that in a conservative state like Arizona, there would be plenty of skepticism and even negativity, but Tempe is a college town, and that somewhat balances things out.
On the other hand, though, he did have interesting stories to tell. People would come in asking about an EV strictly because they were looking for the benefits, but had never tried one out. They assumed that they would be trading away a good driving experience for HOV access if they bought something like a used Nissan LEAF, Fiat 500e, or Chevy Spark EV. Mike and his staff were eager to prove them wrong. “It really isn’t much of a challenge to present them and give people a wonderful experience on them.”
From what I learned talking to Mike, I wouldn’t go as far as to say that EVs sell themselves, but they do seem to do a lot more of the work than other cars. Mike finds curious and sometimes skeptical customers, puts them behind the wheel, and the car helps push the buyer over the edge and into wanting one.
Red Rock is the first dealer I’ve seen focusing on used EVs in a red state, but I’m sure he won’t be the last. Not only are there low-mileage cars available, but the prices can sometimes be below $10,000. Once buyers learn that there’s very little maintenance and experience the instant torque that even cheaper EVs provide, the cars don’t require a lot of arm-twisting to get sold.
As more and more new EVs are sold, more and more used models will be available at prices nearly anybody can afford. If Red Rock’s experience is a good indicator at all, the future of the used EV market is definitely bright.
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