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First Buyers of Nissan Leaf Get a Trunkful of Perks

Bill Vlasic|The New York Times
Friday, 8 Oct 2010 | 9:53 AM ET

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

Nissan Leaf
Source: nissanusa.com
Nissan Leaf

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. “My wife thinks it’s funny because at the end of the day, we’re just buying a car.”

Since Mr. McNaughton, a lawyer in Nashville, 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 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,” Mr. 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 Web site Edmunds.com. “We are putting a lot of money behind this technology.”

Nissan expects the typical Leaf buyer to fit a highly desirable demographic: affluent, college-educated consumers in their mid-40s who are both environmentally sensitive and willing to take a chance that electric technology will be as safe and reliable as internal combustion engines.

Better still, about 85 percent of the people who have reserved a Leaf do not currently own a Nissan, giving the brand exposure to a new audience. Interest in the car has been so great that the company has stopped taking reservations for the initial production run — the Leaf is being built in Japan, with assembly at the new plant in Tennessee beginning in 2012 — but Nissan has plans to sell as many as 500,000 electric cars worldwide by 2013.

Charging Up Nissan's Electric Car
CNBC's Phil LeBeau takes Nissan's "Leaf" on a spin.

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 a million electric cars on the road by 2015. Proponents of electric cars also point to their zero tailpipe emissions, though the electricity to charge the cars creates emissions.

So far the only electric cars available in the United States are made by small companies, like Tesla Motors , and are prohibitively expensive for most buyers (the Tesla Roadster is priced at over $100,000). Other automakers are in various stages of introducing electric vehicles to the market, and General Motors is preparing to bring out the Chevrolet Volt, a $41,000 model that runs on electricity but is not all-electric because it has a gas engine to extend its driving range.

So for now, at least, the Leaf, which Nissan claims can travel 100 miles on a single battery charge, has the stage pretty much to itself. So Nissan is dedicating extensive resources to the introduction and is taking consumer outreach to new lengths.

The company has studied potential buyers in focus groups, on Internet dialogues and at Leaf “tour stops” at shopping malls across the country. 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.”

Mr. McNaughton, the Nashville lawyer, said he was unaware that he had even applied for a free 240-volt charging station for his home. But by filling out a questionnaire, he was selected to be one of 5,700 new Leaf owners to get the charging unit. In exchange, he agreed to let the EV Project — a $230 million national program financed by various government agencies, utilities and corporations — monitor his battery-charging habits.

A 240-volt home charging unit can give the vehicle a full charge in about eight hours, Nissan says.

Ken Muir, an engineer in San Jose, Calif., had a similar surprise when he first saw the Leaf at a mall last year. After mentioning his interest to a Nissan employee, he was contacted by the head of Nissan’s West Coast communications team, who arranged for Mr. Muir to get a personal test drive.

After putting down his $99 deposit, Mr. Muir met for an hour in his home with a technician from Nissan’s supplier of charging stations. “It’s been really amazing to get this amount of personal attention from a huge car company like Nissan,” he said.

He is also a bit giddy about the level of financial support he will get — the $7,500 federal tax credit as well as a $5,000 credit from the state of California, and another $2,000 federal credit toward the purchase of a charging unit.

“I’ve wanted an electric car for 10 years, but I never expected it to make this much economic sense to get one,” Mr. Muir said.

The car itself will keep Nissan connected to its customers long after they drive it off the lot. A communication module installed in the Leaf’s lithium-ion battery will send data to Nissan that monitors the condition of the battery and how it is being used. “It’s not a ‘Big Brother’ thing,” said Mark Perry, head of North American product planning for Nissan. If Nissan sees that a battery cell “has behaved outside the norm, we want to call you or e-mail you and say, ‘Come on in and let’s check it out.’ ”

The first Leafs go on sale in December in five states — California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona and Tennessee, all of which are places where the EV Project is building charging stations.

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