The Compliance Car

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There’s a new model out you may not have heard about – the compliance car.

It’s a car that, for one reason or another, almost no one is willing to buy – and so must be given away at a loss.

Well, that part isn’t new.

From the Edsel to the Pacer to the Aztek, there have been errors of judgment – and marketing or design/manufacturing problems – that led to automotive belly flops. Cars that just didn’t do well. It happens.

But it wasn’t intentional.

That is the distinction between a belly flop like the Aztek – and a compliance car. The latter – the compliance car – is a car designed to fail. A car they know ahead of time won’t sell, that they’ll have to give away at a loss.

And they build it anyway.

And continue to build it.

Here’s the latest for-instance: The Fiat 500e. It is a Fiat 500 that’s been Aztek-ized (or Pacer’d, if you prefer) via the removal of its nothing-wrong-with-it engine and transmission, with a lots-wrong-with-them electric motor and battery pack taking their place.

Now, instead of a car that stickers for $14,995 to start, averages about 30 MPG – and which can travel 300-plus miles on 10.5 gallons of fuel that can be replenished in less than five minutes, you’ve got a vehicle that stickers for $32,795 that can maybe go 87 miles before it conks out and needs to be recharged for several hours.

But don’t worry! Fiat includes ePass – the use of a free loaner 500 (the gas-powered one) when the electric one conks out.

Two – for the price of three!

Teeth beginning to ache yet?

So, naturally, the question occurs . . . why? Wouldn’t it be easier to just give away every third 500 they build? It would probably end up costing them less – and would certainly be less embarrassing.

Which brings us back to the title of this rant. The 500e and the many others just like it (another being the latest iteration of Volkswagen’s eGolf) are compliance cars. Purposely built as economic throw-aways, designed solely to comply with the “zero emissions” fatwas coming out of Washington and state capitals (California, particularly) that insist a certain number of these things will be built each year.

Whether they sell is not considered relevant.

In the minds of the people behind these fatwas, such grimy considerations are of no interest. What interests the – as Orwell styled them – beetle-like men (and, lately, women. . .  kind of) who occupy the cubicles within the bureaucracies that issue the fatwas is that “zero emissions” electric cars shall replace conventional cars.

No matter how much they cost us.

And so they are built. And then, they sit.

Finally, they are given away.

Fiat, for example, will lease you a 500e for $69 a month, with no money down, for 36 months. (My phone costs me $45 per month – and its battery lasts longer.)

That works out to $2,484 to  drive a 500e every day (briefly) for the next three years.

Still no takers for the pitiful little car.

Fiat’s CEO Sergio Marchionne openly admits that each 500e costs his company $14,000 to get rid of – and yet his company continues to build more of them.

Marchionne is many things but an imbecile isn’t one of them. He builds the 500e because he must. Not because of market demand – but because of government demands. He knows he will not be allowed to sell any cars at all unless he builds a certain number of electric lemons.

The fatwas only specify that he build them. Not that he actually sell them.

And so he does – and doesn’t.

As do – and don’t – the others.

VW, for example, just revealed the latest iteration of its eGolf, which – like the electrified version of the 500 – costs about twice what you’d spend on the gas-engined version and only goes about a fourth as far.


No doubt, lines are forming even now.

GM “sold” three of its electric Cadillacs, the ELR, during the last couple of months. It’d look better if they just paid lot boys to drive them to the Hood and leave them there with the windows down and the keys on the seat.

But then, the boys in the Hood are more discriminating. They’ll jack an Escalade instead.

This baying at the moon in a meat suit insanity is going to get worse, too. The automotive press is mostly unwilling to note that the emperor not only has no clothes, he’s manually pleasuring himself in front of the kids. I just finished reading through a review of the 500e (here, if you can stomach it) published by a hack at – an advertorial/press kit recycler that was once, a long time ago, a decent source for information about cars – in which not a mention was made of either the 500e’s range or the time it takes to recharge one or the economic imbecility of spending $32,795 to convert a $14,995 car to electricity.

What would be the upside, friend Edmund? We’re saving gas – of which there is plenty – but hemorrhaging money, which is finite (for most people, certainly those worried about the cost of gasoline) as well as time – also finite – and meanwhile rendering the car’s range much more finite and thus, the car much less useful for the purpose people generally buy a car for – which is to !$%&!! blankety-blank get somewhere and then (ideally) be able to turn around and go back. Without a three-hour intermission.

But the car press – like the press in general – is guilty of bumping uglies with the powers-that-be instead of telling it like it is. They have egged-on this mess by never questioning the wisdom let alone the rightness of such a thing as a compliance car.

Thirty years ago, guys like Brock Yates (RIP, good buddy) would have been all over this. I guess now it’s up to me.

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  1. You see what these things are bringing at auction, after the lease is done? It’s nuts. Dealers are retailing them for $6000, $7000, with 20K to 30K miles and a decent amount of warranty remaining. Not for me but if my daughter were of driving age, I’d be looking at one… in the white and orang-ish-tangerine color. She doesn’t need range to get to school, practices, church functions, etc. …and they’re actually quicker than the gas version.

  2. “It was curious how that beetle-like type proliferated in the Ministries: little dumpy men, growing stout very early in life, with short legs, swift scuttling movements, and fat inscrutable faces with very small eyes. It was the type that seemed to flourish best under the dominion of the Party.” — Nineteen Eighty-four

    HA! That is as I have always pictured it. Little men in little rooms, deciding what will be manufactured and for whom, not a thought for efficiency or even responsibility.

  3. Fiat, for example, will lease you a 500e for $69 a month, with no money down, for 36 months. (My phone costs me $45 per month – and its battery lasts longer.)

    Wow. If Obama were still in power, I’d guarantee you this would be Son of Obamaphone: the Obamacar.

  4. A $69/month lease does sound enticing – even just to keep commuter miles off my other cars.

    Even Sergio Marchionne said he hopes they don’t sell any 500e’s because they’re losing $5k on each one!

  5. Another thing that is not discussed is that the pricing paradigm for household electricity does not have built into it all these electric cars sucking off the grid! If the bazillion cars that are all out there were on the grid, my guess is electricity costs for juicing up the car would probably cost around…. wait for it…. $3.00/gallon!

    Ok, the real arithmetic is $$/mile, so (just to make the math easy) assume $3/gal and 30MPG is 10 cents/mile, which is what it is (roughly) now. So, when Mr. Market comes around on the electric car charging/electric rate paradigm, guess what? You’ll normalize to $0.10/mile.

  6. “Thirty years ago, guys like Brock Yates (RIP, good buddy) would have been all over this. I guess now it’s up to me.”

    It is up to you Eric, and people like you. Truth tellers, capable of critical thinking.

    So thank you for thinking, for writing, and for keeping on.

  7. I commute back and forth to work in my Chevy Volt. My commute is totally electric. I haven’t put gas in that car since October of last year when I moved into my new place which happens to feature a free to use public charger provided by my apartment community. The thing is, my commute is so short I would only have had to fill up with regular or premium gas once a month anyway.

    Even buying the vehicle used it would be silly to pay the premium just to save money on gas. You wouldn’t even break even after 48 months. That’s before you even calculate all the extra interest you paid on the price differential by not paying cash for the car up front.

    I simply enjoy the driving qualities of that particular car because I can fill the tank with gas and head to grandma’s on a whim.

    • Hi Shock me,

      A thought occurred to me based on your comment about not putting gas in it since last October. Gas has a fairly short shelf life; I strongly advise you to burn it up – and refill with fresh gas that’s been treated with a fuel stabilizer.

      Modern cars especially are very vulnerable to problems arising from stale/contaminated fuel.

      • That has been an interesting topic in the Volt forums. To start with the tank is sealed and quite small at only 10 gallons. Periodically it will do maintenance burn of gasoline to keep all the parts humming. Then a drive to grandma’s burns the rest and you are left with whatever is in the tank when you come back.

        Some drivers have gotten the near-stale gas message at which point the vehicle flips to gas only until you burn through the rest.

        Since most of my non-commuting miles are out of town trips, I’ve never kept gas long enough to trigger the changeover.

  8. Wait a sec…I can lease a car for $69 a month? Damn, I got to get on that. Wonder if I can charge a Fiat 500e at home. That would work for me.

    Eric, wonder if you could total up the total dollar amount spent on producing the elusive compliance car since the inception of CAFE…or at least an approximation. A lot of waste.

  9. In a lot of ways the GAS powered Fiat 500 itself is a compliance car. The folks have a gas 500, and those don’t go for sticker price either. I have driven it a number of times now, and it attracts attention wherever you go because there is so few of them around. The number one question asked? What kind of car is that? The funny thing one time was, a teenaged girl knew what it was, because it’s in a Carly Rae Jepsen music video. I am guessing Fiat paid a product placement fee.

    Overall its not a bad little car. It hasn’t been a problem the two years they have had it. Like most little cars it does what it does pretty well. But like all little cars is pretty useless for most things people really need cars for, so they don’t get bought. I would never pay over 30k for one.

    • Richb: “But like all little cars is pretty useless for most things people really need cars for, so they don’t get bought.”

      Well Richb, “little cars” as you call this one, are nothing more than subcompact, 2 or 4 door, 4 or 5 passenger, usually hatchback cars – what most of the rest of the world calls “city cars”. They are extremely popular in almost all of the rest of the world, except perhaps not so much so in the US, and every major manufacturer makes one or more of them, most of which are not sold in the US.

      There are many of us Americans however, myself included, who actually like city cars – and find them quite useful for what I need a car for – namely lower cost transportation. Indeed, I have owned only city cars here in the US for the last 40+ years; and not only they have all served my personal automotive needs quite well; but I have also enjoyed owning and driving them.

    • I have 2 Fiat 500’s ( Mine a 2012 Abarth & my wife’s 2015 ‘1957 Ed’ 500C) and they are great little cars for living in crazy Silicon Valley traffic.

      As far as the 500E goes they are going to be VERY avail soon in the used car market since the 1st year leases are all ending this year ( saw one going for $8k with 20k miles on it ) but ya they are only good as a second car based on the refuel time / range ratio being really sucky still.

  10. I have a friend that leases the 500e, and another that has the eGolf (don;t know if it is leased or bought). I drove the 500e, and the only thing I can say about it is that if you stomp on the accelerator from a stand still, the thing feels like (and drives) like a go-cart. Other than that, meh. I have no idea what these people are thinking though spending good money on a car that requires the equivalent of an IV line to fill up the tank.

  11. Almost $33k for a Fiat 500? Are you shitting me?

    OK, yeah. EVs will work for urban core dwellers. And maybe suburbanites who live close to the supermarket and the doctor’s office to use as a second car. But it takes me most of a day to get to the next state – an EV just won’t fly under those conditions.

    Oh, and I saw my first ELR in the wild the other week. Pretty sharp looking. Doesn’t look the price, though.

    You know what the next thing to come out of Sacramento will be, right? It’s not enough for a car maker to offer these cars for sale in the state. They actually have to sell a certain percentage. This will be called a “goal” and failing to meet it will mean fewer of their IC cars can be sold there. Imagine going into the Jeep dealer in August and finding out they already sold as many as they were allowed to. “But … snow!” “Sorry. Can I offer you an electric Fiat instead?”

    • Hi Chip,

      Yup. The eGolf is just as batshit. They are all batshit.

      The less sense they make, the harder they are pushed.

      And, I agree – “goals” will be next.

      I believe we are not far from a kind of event horizon, beyond which the entire industry is going to collapse.

      • These cars are all crap in a way, even $100k Teslas. I’m a gear head, I own several fast cars and drive cars hard. I once drove a Tesla roadster in some twisty mountain roads in a spirited way, and it went into thermal emergency mode after about four miles – cuts horsepower to something like 1/4 of maximum and makes throttle response sluggish. Until then, I thought the Tesla roadster was a really cool car.

    • Here in the People’s Republic of CA, you can get a 3 year, 12,000 mile per year lease on these cars for a total of $80/month, that’s like a mid-range cell phone plan, for an (almost) car. Also, this being CA, the taxes on an $80/month car payment are an additional $40. I was tempted to do that just because it was so cheap! Here, the CARB sets quotas on electric car sales, and if a manufacturer falls below, they can’t sell gasoline cars until they’re caught up. What’s stopped me from exploiting this is that I feel like it’s government sanctioned theft from the manufacturer.

  12. Eric,

    That other review was “painful” to read.

    Love the weasel words–
    But you will still want to consider whether an electric vehicle fits your lifestyle before taking the plunge.

    Plenty of range for daily errands and commutes
    I guess I should ask for definitions of “daily errands” and “commutes”. The range of this car would leave me stranded in the middle of my “daily errands” and “commutes”.

    Surprised the price tag was not listed as a con. ~$18 000 USD can buy plenty of fuel (Especially @$2.50/gallon — 7200 gallons for about 216,000 miles — many people will never drive that many miles before getting a different car. I will not bother getting into opportunity cost of the 500e.)

    I note that Fiat is bright enough not to sell this vehicle in a cold weather areas (Although some areas in OR and CA do get cold.)

    For me an electric vehicle needs to be at least as convenient to use as an ICE and be similar in cost. (I might consider paying some premium over an ICE, but not much.)

    • Hi Mith,

      Yup; this is what “automotive journalism” has become. Chirpy press kit recycling. Nothing substantive or critical; no context. They will criticize things that are politically correct to criticize. But nothing that’s not.

      • I’ve never been a big car buff, but I enjoyed the occasional Car and Driver until Csere quit. The writers after that were puerile “ain’t that automatic transmission just the coolest thing in the world” twits. Who can forget Motor Trend’s sometimes hilarious picks for Car of the Year?

        Must be a general trend. Auto writing went the way of sports writing, which is to say, from good (sometimes great) to often leftist claptrap and PC maunderings. That’s one advantage to being around a while: you can compare eras to each other and stand a little outside of history. That’s also one disadvantage to getting old: melancholy at what’s been lost, or as Tennyson put it (perhaps not entirely seriously), “O Death in life! The days that are no more.”

        • Morning, Ross –

          ” That’s one advantage to being around a while: you can compare eras to each other and stand a little outside of history.”

          Yes, exactly!

    • Also: In re “plenty of range”… note that these clowns never mention that an EV’s range, unlike an IC engined car’s range, is dramatically affected by conditions. Run the AC or the heater/lights and your EV’s range will go down markedly. In an IC-engined car, heat and cold have much less effect on mileage.

      • eric, how do you get CEO’s of the largest corporations in the world to verily gut their profits? Tell them it’s pc to follow the “climate change crowd” around like rodeo clowns at the fall parades cleaning up the presents the horses left on the street. Never mind that automaker stocks were once something you wanted in your portfolio and now they exist just for the raiders who can buy bulk cheap and sell it with when a tiny spike comes along. Probably lots of stock on WS is being watched with baited breath hoping one of them will recover enough to unload it at not such a large loss.

        I’d sure like to have been a fly on the wall when the CEO of Exxon/Mobil met with Trump and you know those traders would have given their left one to hear it too.

      • I drive 5 miles to work and 5 miles back home. One of these EV’s would work just fine, theres a bunch of other folks doing the same. Thing is I need a truck. I drive my truck the 5 miles and still only fill up once a month. There is no benefit to the EV. Maybe for someone living in a congested city, especially if you got a preferred rate for parking and such due to being small.

        Still it seems in every case you’re better off with a used gas car.