(USA TODAY) -- Having largely exhausted a pool of electric-car devotees as buyers, automakers are facing headwinds in trying to make plug-in cars a mass-market product.
Nissan joined General Motors last week in offering deeper lease discounts on its premier electric car. The latest deal on the all-electric Leaf brings the lease payment closer to the level of a comparable non-electric car, not counting the gas savings, an analysis for USA TODAY by Edmunds.com finds.
While cheap leases are a boon to consumers, they're also a sign that motorists aren't embracing electric cars with enough vigor to be willing to pay the steep price premiums they carry.
Both Volt, an extended-range electric with a backup gas engine, and Leaf, an all-electric battery car, will hit the two-years-on-sale mark at the end of the year. Since they rolled out, more have been introduced, and automakers now offer 10 plug-in models in at least some U.S. markets. Another 10 are on the way next year, the Electric Drive Transportation Association says.
"The good news is, we've gotten people's attention," says Brian Wynne, the association's president. But, "this is a marketplace that is not easy to crack. There are a lot of different vehicles out there."
Some of the new ones will be plug-in hybrid versions of some big mainstream nameplates, including Honda Accord and Ford Fusion midsize sedans.
Yet, some automakers are stepping back when it comes to battery-only electrics. Toyota, for instance, announced this week that it will bring as few as 100 of its electric version of the Scion iQ to the U.S., not the thousands expected earlier. Toyota Vice Chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada warned that current all-electric cars don't meet the range requirements of most drivers.
EV start-ups aren't having any easier time. Tesla warned in a filing this week that production of its new $57,000-and-up all-electric Model S sedan has fallen far behind schedule.
The higher price also has put off buyers, and the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office recently issued a report concluding that the government's up-to-$7,500 tax subsidy for buying an electric car will cost taxpayers $7.5 billion over seven years but does not make up for the extra cost of the cars. It found that electric cars average $16,000 to $19,000 more than a comparable gas-engine or hybrid vehicles.
But cheap leases, along with the savings on fuel costs, have closed that gap some, at least for the Volt and Leaf.
GM has sold 13,497 Volts in the first eight months of this year, according to Autodata, more than three times as many as in the same period last year. The total has been helped by the fact that on the $39,995 Volt, Chevy is offering a $299 monthly lease after a $1,529 down payment.
The Edmunds.com analysis finds that before adding in fuel savings, this amounts to 34 cents a mile for the life of the lease, compared with 22 cents a mile for a comparable, non-electric Chevrolet Cruze, which has a sticker price of less than half a Volt's.
For the $36,050 Leaf, Nissan has cut the lease rate by $30 a month to $219 after $2,999 down. The cost is 31 cents a mile over the life of the lease, compared with 25 cents a mile for a $19,420 Nissan Sentra, a non-electric compact sedan. The analysis doesn't include the gasoline savings.
"If you look at the cents per mile and cost of the Volt and Leaf, it's a steal," says Ivan Drury, an Edmunds.com analyst. "You're going to get a large number of customers who are going to look at this."
Leaf is "not heavily discounted" and the discounts are intended to clear out the 2012s, says Nissan spokesman Travis Parman in an e-mail.
But moving the extra cars sure can't hurt: Nissan is shifting Leaf production from Japan to Smyrna, Tenn., by the end of the year, "and we anticipate increasing sales once that happens."