Going electric comes with perks

BILL VLASIC Updated: October 7, 2010 at 12:00 am • Published: October 7, 2010

Tax credits, rebate checks, personalized home visits, government giveaways — even customer service calls from top corporate executives.

The first all-electric car from a major auto company, the Nissan Leaf, arrives at dealerships in December, but thousands of Americans are already learning that going electric can come with perks like no other car purchase.

''It just keeps getting better and better," said Justin McNaughton, among the 20,000 people who have reserved a Leaf.

Since McNaughton, a lawyer in Nashville, Tenn., paid his $99 deposit, he has been bombarded with government incentives — promises of a $7,500 federal tax credit, a $2,500 cash rebate from the state of Tennessee and a $3,000 home-charging unit courtesy of the Energy Department.

When he had some basic questions about the Leaf, the answers came in a 40-minute telephone call from a senior manager in Nissan's corporate planning department.

''You kind of feel like you're one of the chosen people," McNaughton said.

Precisely. It is all part of an unprecedented effort by federal, state and local governments to stimulate demand for cars that have zero tailpipe emissions — and Nissan's pre-emptive bid to corner the all-electric market much the way that Toyota dominated the early hybrid market with the Prius.

The government subsidies are shaving thousands of dollars off the Leaf's $32,780 sticker price, while other benefits are piling up, like free parking in some cities and the use of express lanes on highways usually reserved for cars with multiple passengers. In Tennessee, where a Leaf assembly plant is being built, Leaf drivers will be able to charge their vehicles free at public charging stations on 425 miles of freeways that connect Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga.

''It's almost shocking how many subsidies are available on the Leaf," said Jeremy P. Anwyl, chief executive of the auto research website Edmunds.com. "We are putting a lot of money behind this technology."

The Obama administration has made electric vehicles a centerpiece of its drive to reduce the nation's reliance on oil and is pumping up subsidies with a goal of getting 1 million electric cars on the road by 2015. Proponents of electric cars also point to their zero tailpipe emissions, although the electricity to charge the cars creates emissions.

Nissan has studied potential buyers in focus groups, on Internet dialogues and at Leaf "tour stops" at shopping malls. Nissan has even hired a firm to make "home visits" to prospective buyers to make sure their garages are properly equipped for charging the vehicle and to answer other questions.

''These people are the visionaries who see the opportunity and want to be a part of it," Trisha Jung, chief marketing manager for the Leaf, said of the customers who had reserved a Leaf. "They will be demonstrating every day that this is a practical technology."

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