Mike Piccolo got a call from a friend about a deal on a new BMW with a price so cheap he thought it was a joke.
The 45-year-old financial adviser from Ramsey, New Jersey, thinks of himself as a car nut, and his buddy is the kind of guy who likes to trawl the internet for car deals. This one appeared on a website, Leasehackr, frequented by fellow bargain hunters: a two-year lease on a 2017 BMW i3, the luxury automaker’s bug-like electric car, for just $54 a month.
“The car’s $50,000,” Piccolo said. “How are you getting it for $50? IPhones aren’t even $50 a month!”
Someone on the website posted the details of the $54 lease, and the prospect of an impossibly cheap luxury car became almost like a dare to Piccolo.
The eye-popping discount is a sign of the daunting economics carmakers face in the slow shift to electric vehicles.
Even when selling to enthusiastic early adopters, automakers pile some of the highest incentive offers onto electric models. Additional state and federal tax credits available to buyers of new electric vehicles combine to create deep discounts. That still hasn’t been enough to stimulate demand.
The number of battery electric models in the U.S. is set to grow fivefold by 2022, but electric cars accounted for 0.6 percent of total U.S. sales last year. Right now there are only 18 options to tempt U.S. buyers.
“There’s an issue of EVs being able to stand on their own in the marketplace without a credit,” said Jeff Schuster, an analyst at LMC Automotive.
Expensive battery technology has turned the electric future into a money-losing present. The sport utility vehicles and pickups sold by General Motors Co. help cover the loss of about $9,000 every time someone drives an electric Chevrolet Bolt off a dealer lot. The electric version of the Fiat 500 subcompact sells at a staggering $20,000 loss in the U.S. The top-selling electric car company in the U.S., Tesla Inc., is notoriously unprofitable and managed to go $2 billion into the red on $8.5 billion in sales last year.
EVs don’t fare as well as conventional cars in the used market, since heavy discounts have eroded their value. Plus, used-car buyers don’t benefit from state and federal tax credits.
As a result, most EV drivers in the U.S. don’t buy. Lease rates hover at 80 percent for battery-electric cars in the U.S., compared with a 30 percent industry average, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
When you lease a car, you’re essentially paying the car company for the amount the car’s value will depreciate over the life of the lease contract, broken up into monthly payments. Automakers will often low-ball the depreciation estimate to lower your payments and close the deal, but they do so at their own peril, since they’ll be stuck trying to sell the car at true market value after you’re done.
That’s a particularly risky game with electric cars, since they depreciate so steeply. Of six 2018 EV and plug-in hybrid models sold in March, the i3 had the lowest forecast residual value, at 27 percent of its original price after three years, according to researcher ALG.
The $54 lease deal reported on the Leasehackr website, which was confirmed by documents viewed by Bloomberg News, is an extreme example of this game. For Piccolo, his bargain-hunter friend had to call 15 dealerships before finding one willing to match. Even then, Kim said the dealer balked at the final price, but the negotiation still ended up with an eye-popping monthly lease priced at $112.