Enough with concept cars, we need them on the lot: Don Pittis

As North Amercians wait for the latest car sales numbers this week, there is one thing that's certain. Despite all the talk of an automotive revolution, most of us are still shopping for old-fashioned gas guzzlers.

Self-driving? Battery? Hybrid? Hydrogen? For most Canadian car shoppers it's all still talk

This Japanese concept car floats in the event of unexpected flooding, but buyers are still waiting for far less-specialized vehicles that are always available in the future, but not now. (Reuters)

Is there anything more annoying than those "concept cars" that never seem to show up on the dealer's lot?

For those of us waiting for the automotive revolution touted in weekly headlines, a drive to the dealership can be a bit of a let down. As I recently discovered, buying the car of the future is expensive and for most of us, well, still in the future.

As we wait this week to see if the Canadian car-buying boom continued in April, there is already something we can count on.

Internal combustion still hot

From personal research, I can reveal now that in April, the vast majority of Canadian new car buyers were shelling out for vehicles powered by the fossil-fuel burning internal combustion engines that were a brilliant modern invention about 160 years ago.
The 2017 Ford F-150 Raptor. Ford's gas-burning F-150 remains a Canadian hot seller. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

A trip to my nearest car lot, a Toronto GM dealership, shows that there is really nothing else being sold. Literally.

My motivation was not just journalistic. As some of you may recall, my family was one of those caught up in last year's Volkswagen diesel scandal that came as a such a disappointment to lifelong VW drivers.

Diesel engines are known to last a long time and, with careful maintenance, we had counted on our TDI wagon running for at least ten years.

Still waiting

We had to spend a little more for what we thought was an environmental fuel sipper.

We thought the 10-year lifetime would have taken us well into the brave new world, when VW and its competitors would have turned the corner with practical cars that didn't burn fossil fuels at all.
Volkswagen is showing off its BUDD-e electric vehicle but if you're trying to replace your smoky Jetta — so sorry, not available. (Reuters)

Canadian VW owners still don't know the details of the offer, but suddenly we have to consider that our best option could turn out to be selling our 2009 Jetta wagon back to VW. And that may require buying some other car with the proceeds.

I like to think that VW has learned its lesson. And, if it survives the current debacle, maybe someday it will bring us their flying car — so far, apparently, just available in China. Thank goodness for the comments which reveal this video was actually made with computer animation.

Flying off the lot

You probably aren't surprised you'll have to wait for a flying car, but with all the headlines about self-driving, battery- and hydrogen-powered vehicles out there, you'd think the future was here already. Not for the average Canadian car buyer.

In fact at my local car dealership, despite explaining that I was looking for a really high efficiency car to replace the VW, and that I was not buying till autumn, the very agreeable salesman directed me exclusively to gas-burners.
GM's 2016 Chevrolet Volt plug-in electric — pretty car, rave reviews, but not on the lot. (Reuters)

The GM engineers have really done miracles with their internal combustion, offering a 1.4 litre four-cylinder Buick Encore SUV that gets 8.5 litres per 100 kilometres. But I asked for something with even better fuel economy and hinted I wasn't worried about the price.

Only after I asked directly after the Chevy Volt did he tell me about GM's gas-electric hybrid that offers 75 kilometres of range before the gasoline motor kicks in. But they were hard to get, he said. The 2016s had all been snapped up and there were none on the lot.

Despite rave reviews, and stories about people having to have their old fuel pumped out of the tank because they so seldom drive far enough to switch to gas, my salesman said he had never sold a Volt. Besides, he said, they were very expensive.

There's little wonder that electrics are so far behind in sales if there are none available and salesmen don't mention they exist. And so much for the miracle of the free market when demand exceeds supply.

Launched in Canada

Of course GM is not alone. For all the hype, getting your hands on the hottest electrics and hybrids isn't easy. You don't see them on sale in your auto flyers.

Despite being launched at the Canadian International Auto Show, Tesla's sought-after gull-wing SUV is virtually unavailable in Canada. Ford got its hands on one by paying $55,000 US over the sticker price.
Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors Inc., introduced the Model X car at the company's headquarters, but the sought-after SUV's first appearance at an auto show was in Canada. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press)

Of course that's a good sign for electric cars. It means Ford is hot on Tesla's tail, realizing that CEO Elon Musk may be onto something. There were reports last week that Ford is reverse-engineering its own equivalent of Telsa's Model 3.

According to Wired Magazine, the electric car revolution is still coming. It's just been delayed to 2022.

That's when "the biggest obstacle to the sale of EVs — they cost too much — will be obliterated and cars that run on electricity will cost less than those that run on dead dinosaurs," said the enthusiastic if scientifically inexact Alex Davies.

Perhaps the most surprising thing is that, despite price and other obstacles, Canadian electric car sales continue to increase, even though they are dwarfed by conventional vehicles.

And Canadians have a third alternative. If the right vehicle is too hard to find, maybe it's time for more of us to try to get by with public transit, bicycles, rentals and car-sharing and not buy a car at all.

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis

​More analysis by Don Pittis


Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.


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