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USA: First Store in Network of Chinese EV Dealership Opens in Southern California

The Irvine, Calif. showroom for EcoCentre. The dealership sells Coda electric sedans (left) and low-speed electric vehicles made in China.

Can a dealership selling electric cars from China succeed in the U.S.? Ramon Alvarez thinks so. He spent the last two years getting the permits needed to import low speed electric vehicles from China and sell them in California. A few weeks ago, Alvarez helped open the first EcoCentre dealership that will carry the cars. “Yesterday was the culmination of two years of the hardest work I have ever done,” Alvarez told me when I visited the EcoCentre in Irvine, Calif. the day after it opened.

Alvarez is the exclusive North American distributor for the Wuling EVs, said Bill Fisher, the president of AmAsia International, the Florida-based company importing the EVs. Some entrepreneurs previously aiming to sell Chinese-made low-speed electric vehicles in the U.S. did not work with existing dealers. Using longtime automotive dealers is a big advantage, said Fisher. “Alvarez is changing the game,” he said. “Auto dealers have good relations with fleet buyers from local governments. They have showroom traffic, and they will service vehicles on site.”

Denice Fladeboe Mock, president of the Fladeboe Automotive Group in Irvine, Calif., owns the first EcoCentre store in the U.S. “I have always been involved in green things,” said Mock. “Ramon approached me and I liked his concept.” She is also a Coda dealer—a Coda sedan was in the EcoCentre showroom—and sells Honda’s various alternative fuel vehicles through her Honda dealership.

She has no worries about selling a Chinese-made electric vehicle. “Ramon has really done his research,” said Mock. She figures her location is a “perfect storm” for reaching fleet customers. The University of California Irvine is nearby, as are a medical center and numerous corporate campuses. But Mock doesn’t see sales immediately skyrocketing. She will do a lot of grassroots marketing, said Mock. “I don’t think the EV market will grow really fast. My job is to educate the public.”
Strategy: Lower the Cost and Target Fleets

Alvarez, who owns Lincoln and Jaguar dealerships, figures fleets are the target customers for his first group of EVs. I think his concept may succeed. I am familiar with the Chinese company that produces the small commercial vehicles Alvarez is selling. Wuling, the company, has come a long way in the last few years. The vehicle itself is probably solid. Just as important, it will be sold through a network of stores run by established automotive dealers offering after-sales service. That is a big plus. But, I didn’t test-drive any of the Wuling EVs. I will definitely return to Irvine to do that and report back.
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