Electric Cars

Now might be the right time to buy an electric car

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Who wouldn’t dig a car that is dead silent, spews no noxious fumes, is eco-chic and can be fueled simply by plugging it in for the night, like an iPhone?

But a number of factors stop would-be buyers short. Higher sticker prices are one major snag, even though electric cars end up being cheaper to maintain and operate than gasoline-powered vehicles in the long run.

Now, a local nonprofit is attempting to goose electric-car sales with sharply reduced pricing.

The nonprofit, Drive Electric Minnesota, does not itself sell electric cars but has teamed up with a local Nissan dealer to offer a steep discount on the Leaf electric-car model.

Consumers get the discount much as they might get a killer deal on chicken thighs at the supermarket: by brandishing a coupon.

Through the end of March, Drive Electric Minnesota is offering vouchers good for a big Leaf discount at Kline Nissan in Maplewood. Those who sign up on the nonprofit’s site (driveelectricmn.org) typically receive the voucher by email within a few days.

The deal applies only to a particular version of the 2016 Leaf, called the SV, but the rebate’s math is attention-grabbing: The car, with a sticker price of $35,420, drops to $29,107 with the voucher.

When factoring in a federal tax credit available to all electric-vehicle purchasers, the damage on a Leaf is $21,607, or about 40 percent off the manufacturer’s suggested retail price, or MSRP.

The voucher is also good for those wanting to lease a Leaf instead of purchasing one outright, although the math works out a bit differently.

Jukka Kukkonen, a Drive Electric founding member, said he pays about $315 a month to lease his 2016 Leaf and calculates that under the rebate program, he would pay about $45 less a month.

“The idea is to get a bigger number of people purchasing or leasing new electric vehicles for lower prices,” said Kukkonen, who operates an electric-car consulting firm called PlugInConnect.

Nothing like this has been tried in Minnesota before. Drive Electric Minnesota, a group dedicated to boosting electric-car use in the state, said it modeled its rebate program on a similar program in Colorado.

That program, Solar Benefits Colorado, available late last year to those in Boulder, Adams and Denver counties, knocked about 15 percent off the cost of solar rooftop systems and about $8,300 off the cost of the Leaf, according to Brad Smith, a Boulder County sustainability specialist.

“We decided to replicate that program,” said Brendan Jordan, a vice president at the Great Plains Institute for Sustainable Development in Minneapolis.

The institute operates Drive Electric Minnesota, a coalition of electric utilities, government agencies, auto makers, auto dealers, nonprofits and other electric-car proponents that seek to popularize this mode of transportation.

This is not a always a breeze, Jordan said, particularly at a time when gas prices have come down and average motorists are less obsessed with alternate vehicle technologies.

But “the biggest challenge with electric cars is a high up-front cost,” he said. “There is a lower lifetime cost, with an equivalent of 50 cents a gallon for fuel, and a lot of savings on maintenance since the cars are much simpler. But owners pay more up front.”

What’s in it for auto dealers?

To attack this problem head on, Drive Electric Minnesota sought to set up rebate programs with local auto dealers that sell electric cars. These include BMW, Ford, General Motors and Nissan dealers. Only Kline Nissan has been amenable to such an arrangement so far, said Jordan, who is still willing to negotiate with other dealers.

Although a dealer takes a big hit on the sale of a single auto under this sort of arrangement, it hypothetically is able to sell more cars than it usually does, and thereby come out ahead on volume, Jordan said.

Kline Nissan also looks to garner other benefits, such as long-term relationships with its new customers and referrals to boost revenue even further over the years, said Adam Bazille, a Kline sales staffer focused on the Leaf.

“We think it is the wave of the future, and we’d like to see as many electric cars on the road as we can get,” Bazille said.

This is an easy sell for one segment of Bazille’s clientele, which consists of car buyers who have done their research and are well-informed about electric-car technology, he said.

But other would-be electric-car buyers are hesitant and brimming with questions, Bazille said. They want to know, for instance, how much it costs to operate an electric car compared to a gas car.

For typical Leaf users, this works out to about $50 a month if the car logs about 15,000 miles on the odometer in a year, he said. This gets even cheaper by charging at off-peak hours, he added.

With the shoppers thereby reassured, and with the purchasing rebate as an added incentive for such tire-kickers, Bazille hopes to score healthy sales. He hasn’t seen a stampede so far, though.

“It at least gets people thinking about the option,” he said.

The Leaf

A Leaf has a range of about 70 to 80 miles on a single charge in the winter, Bazille said, and about 100 to 110 miles in the summer with the higher-capacity, 30-kilowatt-hour battery pack on the model Kline is offering.

Those buying a Leaf as part of the rebate program get additional perks, Jordan said. These include free 30-minute sessions for two years at public “fast charging” stations.

Such chargers juice up electric cars more quickly than conventional charging stations. About a dozen of the fast chargers are sprinkled around the metro area, along with about 240 standard charging stations with much-lengthier charging times.

Because a Leaf can get nearly a full charge in 30 minutes at a fast charger, resourceful users could end up driving their Leafs for free during those two years, Bazille speculates.

Most electric-car owners charge their vehicles at home, though, and will typically spring for 240-volt “level two” outlets that work faster than regular 120-volt outlets.

Ralph Jenson, a Minneapolis resident who until recently owned a 2015 Leaf, said the rebate has no major gotchas that he can see.

“You’re getting a Leaf for pretty darn cheap,” said Jenson, who recently passed on his Leaf to his daughter and now drives an electric BMW i3.

The Leaf, a five-passenger car, “has a good size and good headroom for those of us who are tall,” Jenson said. “It’s nice and reliable, mainly because it’s electric. There’s not much that can go wrong with it.”

In terms of range, the 2016 Leaf beats his old Leaf, which manages only about 85 miles per charge. He said he has friends driving the latest Leaf who regularly manage in excess of 120 miles a charge, a bit higher than the advertised range.

“The only gotcha (with the rebate) is the short time” through March 31, Jenson said.

This report includes information from the Boulder, Colorado, Daily Camera.

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