With the success of Toyota Motor's (TM) Prius hybrid, automakers have learned that there's a strong appetite among American consumers for vehicles that don't run solely on gasoline. Nissan Motors (NSANY) is looking to broaden U.S. drivers' choices by offering yet another alternative, its all-electric Leaf compact sedan.
Some 115,000 people have signed up at the NissanUSA website to get more information about the car, which goes on sale beginning in December, Nissan said. And those folks (as well as any who register at the site by the end of Tuesday) can be among the first owners of the Leaf by placing a reservation for the zero-emissions vehicle.
Registered users wishing to reserve a Leaf must pay a $99 placeholder fee, which is fully refundable, Nissan said. Reservations will open to the general public May 15.
Early interest in car has been encouraging, said Brian Carolin, senior vice president for sales and marketing at Nissan's North American sales unit. "Consumers are pledging broad support for the first affordable electric vehicle for the mass market."
Of course, affordable is a relative term. The car's $32,780 sticker price can be reduced by taking advantage of a $7,500 federal tax credit for electric vehicles. Additionally, several states also offer tax rebates that can further reduce the cost, including California and Georgia, which offer $5,000 incentives. Another bonus: In California, drivers of zero-emission vehicles may use carpool lanes without carrying additional passengers.
Nissan says its lease prices for the Leaf will begin at $349 a month. Initially, in the U.S., the cars will be sold only in Oregon, California, Washington, Arizona and Tennessee, with wider availability next year.
But the Leaf is no bargain, says auto industry analyst Arthur Wheaton of Cornell University. The vehicle's biggest downside is that buyers must lease the battery. "So, you may not be using gasoline, but you will have a separate lease for the batteries," Wheaton says. Consumers will also incur considerable recharging expenses and will have to purchase a unique home recharger that requires professional installation.
"It's an image car," Wheaton says. "In terms of practicality for most people, it's way too expensive for what you're getting."
Beyond whether the Leaf is a good buy, it remains to be seen if Nissan can meet demand. The automaker only has the capacity to build 50,000 vehicles annually at its Leaf plant in Japan. And U.S. consumers alone have already expressed interest in more than two years worth of cars.
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