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Dealer Q&A: Buying A Small, Task-Oriented Vehicle For Campus Use
Published: Author: Category: Buying Guides
SVR interviewed Andy Kaplan of Dominion Utility Vehicles in Bedford, Virginia about buying a small, task-oriented vehicle for use on a college or university campus.  Some common uses for these vehicles include people transport, campus security, general maintenance, grounds keeping and other heavier duty work. He sells the GEM, Polaris Brutus and Gravely Atlas JSV four-wheel drive utility vehicles.

When you are talking to a first time buyer of a vehicle for use at a college or university what are some of the questions you ask to help find the right vehicle?

If it is a people mover, how many passengers? Do you need storage or cargo capability on the back, and how much weather protection do you need, and how much operating range do you need?

How about for a general maintenance vehicle?

Very similar questions. How much cargo capacity in term of weight? How much GVW do you need? What special working equipment do you need? Do you need ladder racks?  Toolboxes? Do you need enclosed storage? Basically if you tell me how you are going to use it, I can suggest various configurations for you.

What are some of the most common questions they ask you?

Everybody’s almost immediate question is how far does it go on a charge, how fast does it go and how long does it take to recharge it.

Do they typically test drive a vehicle?

Yes. I always have a fleet of demos. It is one of the most important sales tools that I have. Depending on the circumstance, they will either be at the location for half a day or a whole day so different personnel and departments can try it. And if they ask and I sense there is a serious level of interest I may leave it for a day or two so they can get a feel for how far they can drive it and how long it takes to charge it. This also gives them an opportunity to invite other people on campus to see and drive the vehicle.

Is there anything specific they should be doing during the test drive to help them decide if the vehicle is correct for them?

One of the most important things is to drive it exactly where they actually use it. Will it go up that tight alley? Will it go between buildings? Will it go up on the grass lawns? Will it climb those hills?  Those are the questions they have that can only really be answered by driving the vehicle. I was on a hilly campus with a four-seater a couple of weeks ago and the police department was going to use it. It’s kind of funny. I was with the police chief on the campus and we went up and down the hills. And he said it was only two of us so we should pick someone else up and see how it goes with three people. He said that’s great we should try it with four people. People have hopes of how it will perform but they also have doubts, so when we get there and try it they are pleasantly surprised.

What are some of the key features that a buyer typically looks for in a campus or university setting?

Again it depends whether it is the passenger or the truck model. One of the things they like on campus is the silent operation. Weather protection in our part of the country is important. I almost always sell them with doors and a heater. I think people who have experience with golf carts or lesser vehicles with canvas sides and zip out windows and so forth appreciate the hard doors. I think it is a feature that is really important. A window defroster - people haven’t seen that with a vehicle of this type. Here where we have the Dixie Dew that is very important.

What are some features that they don’t usually ask or think about but you have found to be useful for a college or university setting?

If it is a campus tour vehicle, they usually like an enclosed compartment to carry brochures, flyers or whatever the case may be. Also we can arrange on the rear stake sides where they can post signs for upcoming events or to identify it as a campus tour. It is a rolling advertisement. We have customers that if a speaker is coming or a concert is coming they will post that and roll around campus.

I think also tilt steering. More and more people like that because it helps to accommodate drivers of multiple sizes. With the new GEM and the legroom it is not as important as it used to be, but it is still important.

What about four-wheel drive?

In my world, unfortunately, there is not an electric vehicle with four-wheel drive that is commercially acceptable. Polaris makes such a vehicle, the Polaris Ranger EV, but it is sold through a different channel than the channel I’m in. I’m called a Polaris Commercial dealer. The Ranger EV is not in that channel and that would be my birthday present if they ever said I could sell those things because we are in such a hilly terrain and 4WD dominant terrain I think there would be a market for it. But that is just not happening right now. So the 4WD is not something I can deal with from an electric vehicle point of view. I have other gas and diesel 4WD vehicles.

Electronic power steering?

The jury is out in my mind. We never had it on the GEMs until these new vehicles [2016 model year] came out. In my own mind I’m not sure if I should recommend it or not because they are already so easy to steer. But if you are in a hospital and you have older volunteers driving the vehicles and picking up people in the parking lot then I would recommend it. I’m delivering three to a medical school today. If they have small or perhaps female officers driving it they may want to try the power steering. But the fact that it is available is really nice.

What type of cargo box payload do you recommend for everyday maintenance vs. heavier duty grounds keeping?

The gas and diesel vehicles I sell are strictly 4WD utility vehicles. The Gravely Atlas, and the Polaris Brutus are special purpose. These are not like a 4WD truck. These are all off-road vehicles, big bulky tires, so forth. Not that I want to mention another name, but like a John Deere Gator. We sell that type of vehicle as well. But in the truck segment how long do we need the bed to be? In the GEM eLXD the bed is 70” long.  In the GEM EM1400 it is 48” long and that makes a difference in what they want to haul with it or how much inside covered cargo space they need. I’m delivering today an EM1400 with an enclosed box, so it is a smaller box, that is being used for mail delivery on campus and they feel they don’t need more space than that provides.

The other metric of course is GVW payload capacity. Our max is 1,400 lbs and from the 1,400 lbs. you subtract any options or accessories you add to it. So if you add a ladder rack that comes off the 1,400 lbs. If you put an enclosed box on it that comes off the 1,400 lbs, but we need to know what you are hauling. If it is only a couple of toolboxes that is not a problem, but if it is an air compressor then we need to know how much it weighs. We need to know the weight and length of the equipment. For multi-tasking we can have a toolbox and a ladder rack. We can have an enclosed box and a ladder rack. We can have an additional recessed storage with those, so we can do a mix and match to a certain degree depending on how they are planning to use it.

When do you go from you can’t use this electric vehicle like the eLXD but should use a vehicle like the Brutus or the Gravely?

If your terrain is such that you need 4WD that is probably the number one consideration. The second consideration is what else do you plan on doing with it? Do you plan on putting a snowplow for sidewalks, a spreader on the back, a sprayer on the back, and a winch on the front? If the usage that they have includes those types of applications then you are going to lean more towards the 4x4 utility vehicle rather than electric GEM. The electric GEMs are capable of doing a lot of those things but I think the 4x4 utility vehicles are more capable. So if you are the groundskeeper for the college and you need the vehicle to plow the snow in the winter and spray the weeds all over your hilly terrain then you are probably better off with a 4x4 utility vehicle. If you are a flat campus and you are going to run around most of the time and maybe plow a sidewalk in the winter then you can do just fine with the electric vehicle. It’s a lengthy conversation considering multiple factors, the hills, the tasks and the combination of all those things and then determining the best option or providing alternatives and determining what is best.

For electric vehicles what type of batteries do you suggest?

Anything other then flooded. The flooded batteries that require the owner to add water, distilled water, on a monthly or more regular basis is a road to disaster because people never keep their batteries watered on that regular schedule and as soon as the batteries start getting low they start loosing capability in drawing long term power. They do great the first six months or a year and then you start getting complaints that they don’t go as far as they used to. The next year they won’t go far enough and you have to start replacing them. There is no future for those batteries for how we are using them. We always recommend the maintenance free batteries and once we get a sense of how far people are traveling, how many hills and how cold it is we can determine if there is a need for a distance battery or if the standard battery pack is enough.

A lot of customers overestimate how long they drive everyday. A lot of them say we drive 15 or 20 miles a day when in reality they drive 5 or 7 miles a day. One of the things we do on test drives is measure the daily route, or if we leave it with them a day or two we ask them to measure their average daily route.  In many cases people are surprised to find they are going fewer miles then they thought. But I also like to set people with a reserve far in excess of their average daily range. For example, at a college on graduation day they are going to use those vehicles all day long directing traffic and moving people. They might go three times as far or four times as far as they do on any other day so I like them to have a reserve to handle days like that.

With proper maintenance how long should that battery pack last?

First off, on these maintenance free batteries there is only two things you have to do to them.  One is to clean the crud that builds up on the battery terminals a couple times a year and the other is to make sure the battery cables are kept tight to the battery posts. If you do that to the batteries they will last 4 to 6 years and ironically the more that people drive them the longer they last. What I’ve been told about that is that the more frequent charging cycles and more use actually has a chemical effect inside the batteries, that keeps the plates clean and makes the batteries last longer. People that don’t use them as much, don’t charge them as much, don’t get as many of those chemical reactions.

The other thing is that there is a difference in these batteries from charging them from when they are all the way down from just charging them a little bit. If you drive a few miles and use only 10% of the battery and then charge it you get a top-off or a surface charge they call it. But if it is all the way down to the bottom and you charge it all the way to the top, you get a deep charge and there is a difference between the two. So the people that drive them hard everyday and charge them everyday or every other day, the batteries last longer then the people who don’t use them quite as much. People who have them at their beach house and only charge them twice a month; their batteries have the shortest life. But on a college campus I’ll tell the people to depreciate the battery pack over a four year period of time.

What’s the range in pricing that a first-time buyer expects to spend on a new vehicle based on the various applications?

I think what we actually sell is in the $10,000-$24,000 range.

Is financing or leasing options usually available?

Yes there are. Polaris has a relationship with Sheffield Financing which is really specialized in all kinds of lawn mowers and utility vehicles. They are a really good company and easy to work with if you are an individual. They are not setup to deal with an entity unless an individual signs for that entity. For leasing we have a couple of options. They are affiliated with a couple of different leasing companies.  We also have an in-house leasing company that we use ourselves for customers and find we can be a little more flexible with our terms and can match up with the needs of our customers. For example, if you go to a normal leasing company they might limit you to 36 months or have a fixed residual value or percent and we can vary those terms if the customer wants a longer term or lower residual or if they want to guarantee that they will buy it at a higher residual we can provide those options.

Will your customers lease if they want to put in into their operating budget but purchase it outright if it is coming out of their capital budget?

Yes, that is correct.  Everyone is on a tight budget right now and certain departments want a $300 a month lease payment so they can call it an expense rather than lay out $15,000 now. And some colleges will not consider leasing. Everyone has their own policies on it.

Now colleges and universities often purchase based on their budgeting calendar, how much time should they allow in terms of contacting you, having a test drive and getting a price quote in order to make their budget deadlines?

I strive to answer every inquiry immediately. Yesterday I received an inquiry about an EM1400 so I had several phone calls and several emails with that customer and made an appointment for a test drive on the 18th [one week from today] I’m able to act about as fast as the customer wants me too. It depends on how far I have to travel for a demo, but as far as quotes or answering questions I’m ready to go at any time.

Typically what you have to do in any type of government agency or non-profit you have to give them a ballpark sort of price so they can include it in their annual budget request. I have to tell them this type of vehicle will be about $20,000. Then they apply for $20,000 in their budget and when they have the $20,000 they put it out to bid. When they put it out to bid with exact specifications we come back with specific pricing. Frequently the specs you give on a ballpark price are not the specs they end up going with. I can make the purchasing process move very quickly but the internal purchasing process of these organizations is slower and more deliberate. If they are ordering vehicles, we have to allow five to six weeks of delivery time.

Is that for a special order or for something you don’t have in your inventory?

Well with GEM most models are custom ordered because of the wide number of variations and options. What I keep in my inventory I consider to be all demonstrators that I put on a trailer and take to customers. I may sell a few during the year but typically, once a year; I retire those, sell them and get a new fleet. Everything I have is for sale but generally speaking everything I sell is special ordered.

As an example, we are delivering today three vehicles to a medical school. The people started contacting me about that late last summer. And we had a lot of conversations back and forth and in October we did a demonstration for them. The model that they demonstrated turned out not to be what they wanted, so we went back in November and did another demonstration. At the end of that demonstration they made the determination that that was the vehicle they wanted. It probably took them another month to put together the final specs that they wanted. This was done by committee, which is not unusual. Then they told me that the specs were final and they sent it to purchasing for the issuance of a purchase order and that took another two or three weeks. So, what started last summer is ending today [March], and that is not at all unusual.

And is the process faster when they purchase off of a state contract?

Depending on whether or not they have the budget approved. If they have the budget approved they can go to the contract and send me an order the same day. If it is not approved then they have to go through the same process of internally getting that budget figure and then applying for the purchase after it is approved. Some places are better organized than others. Probably the bigger the fleet the more organized they are and better equipped to anticipate their needs going forward.

On the state contract we go through the same process. People look at the various options and configurations and they want to see it. We want to make sure people get what they want and there aren’t any surprises. In the last month there have been a couple of institutions that put out for public bid specifications that basically said a six passenger electric vehicle. I put out a bid for a six passenger vehicle with basically no other options but when you sit and talk with people and talk about a carrier on the back, a radio, etc. they realize their specs are incomplete. So they do the specs all over again. So, even with the state contract they don’t just call you up and say I’ll take it. They want to have a conversation and a demonstration.

The pricing on the state contract is that pricing for a basic vehicle and pricing for different options?

The terms of the state contract is a fixed percent discount on the base price and a fixed percent discount on the options and a fixed price on extended service contract, labor and parts. All the prices and options are listed there and it is helpful but there are a lot questions that have to be discussed.

Do you provide facilities personnel with any type of maintenance or other vehicle training?

There are two types of training. For operators – how to drive them, charge them, those type of things. Every time we deliver a vehicle we offer the customer a training session for anybody they want to participate. As far as service training we help all we can by providing manuals and literature. I have one customer with a fleet of 20 GEMs and a shop manager responsible for them. I had to pull a lot of strings and I was able to get him enrolled in the regular online Polaris training that our technicians go through so he did that. But generally for smaller fleets we provide literature and phone advice.

Do you offer on site vehicle servicing?

We have mobile technicians that go to their location to make repairs depending on what it is. Sometimes we have to pick up the vehicle and bring it back to service it. We sort of triage problems. For example, if a customer calls us up and a headlight bulb is burned out, we just send them a bulb. They don’t need us to come out for that. If they call again and say we put it in and it is still not working, then I might have them check a few diagnostic things for us – check this wire, this switch, this fuse – in hope of finding the easy thing. If we determine that there might be a short in the system that requires tracing wires and the like, at that point we dispatch a technician.

Do customers typically get some sort of maintenance or service agreement?

GEM has a very generous warranty. It is two years or 8,000 miles. Polaris themselves sells an extended service contract. I think it is very valuable to the customer and I recommend it to everybody. It can be a total of three, four or five years and makes it unlimited mileage and includes some assistance in getting to and from a dealer. This is all warranty type repairs and not routine maintenance. The electric vehicles need so very little maintenance and every town where there is a college there is a gas station nearby that can clean battery terminals and tighten terminals and change brake pads when needed. It is so simple that they really don’t need us. They need us when there is a problem with an electrical problem or an issue with the motor. Any qualified car mechanic can do it. Any qualified golf car mechanic can do it. Depending on the location, they don’t want to pay us to travel two or three hundred miles when they have a less expensive alternative.

So besides the battery and the brakes is there any other type of maintenance that a buyer would expect to have in the first year of owning the vehicle?

No.  If you look at the owner’s manual of the new GEM you would chuckle when you looked at how many things are listed under the routine maintenance. Next to nothing.  Occasionally an axle boot will rip off. That is easy to repair. The tires wear. If you hit a pothole you will have to adjust the toe, those kinds of things. I don’t think we ever replaced a motor in 8 or 9 years other than a really old vehicle. Occasionally a charger box or controller box will short out. The electrical ones are far easier to work with. The gas and diesel utility vehicles are far more complex.

How long should tires typically last?

Our typical customers are in the two to three year range. What happens with tires is people bust a curb, hit a pothole, they go out of alignment and wear out that way. The tires are much less expensive than passenger car tires too. Tires are probably $75 to $125 each depending on the size.

How long should the vehicle last with proper maintenance and moderate use?

Our customers keep them until the wheels fall off. My customer with the oldest fleet right now is a university that has 6 or 8 that are ten years old. They spend whatever they have to spend to keep them running with no intent of replacing any of them. Although, I think they are at the point of starting to analyze repair costs, so if we tell them they are going to need a new set of batteries that is going to cost them $1,200, I think they are now for the first time determining whether $1,200 is a good investment on a ten year old vehicle.  The nice thing about these vehicles they sort of take care of themselves. They get a local guy that can fix them, they can get some stuff from the aftermarket and a lot of people can keep them going on the fly. There are a lot of really old GEMs around. I don’t really see an endpoint to them. If it’s old and rundown and not as reliable then they pass it on to the next guy. First the carpenter uses it and then the painter gets it and uses it to haul a ladder across campus.

Thanks for your time Andy.

Dominion Utility Vehicles can be reached at 540-793-2777 or at http://www.dominionelectricvehicles.com/