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Nissan's Greener Electric Cars

Do pure electric cars make financial sense?

Posted: 2 pm ET

Volkswagen recently unveiled a plug-in electric car version of their Golf compact, which it plans to roll out in the U.S. market by 2013. Like Nissan’s LEAF, the Golf Blue-E-Motion will be a pure electric car. in contrast to GM’s much-touted gas-electric hybrid Volt.

If you’re considering a pure electric, you’ve probably already made peace with a range that will be limited to about 100 miles, fine for most commutes. The question for consumers here is whether electric cars make real economic sense. While Volkswagen hasn’t announced pricing on its Blue-E-Motion yet, Nissan’s LEAF will start at $32,780 for a car that’s about the size of a five-door Mazda 3. From there, you can subtract a $7,500 federal tax credit the car will be eligible for, and you get a total outlay of $25,280.

Volkswagen Golf Blue-E-motion. Photo courtesy: Volkswagen.

That may seem steep for a compact car that’s about the size of Nissan’s down-market Versa, but it’s not entirely without precedent. While there are plenty of compact hatchbacks that start much lower, including the Versa ($13,350 for the base hatchback), European brands such as Audi and Volvo have begun importing luxury hatchbacks from Europe that are comparable in price, such as the Volvo C30 ($24,600) and the Audi A3 ($27,270). Even a Mazda 3 decked out with the same goodies that look to be standard on a LEAF comes in at $23,695.

Nissan's Greener Electric Cars

Sure, pure electric cars won’t be burners like some of these pricier hot hatches (the LEAF tops out at 90 mph), but if you care more about the environment, or even the cost per mile to operate, and if automakers can keep their prices at around LEAF levels, I don’t think pure electrics will be a bad value proposition, especially when you figure a similarly kitted-out Prius will cost you the same or possibly more. And because buying power from a utility company is much cheaper than buying the equivalent amount of energy in gasoline form, the cost per mile savings is substantial. Wired Magazine puts the cost per mile at 4 cents for the LEAF, compared with 13 cents per mile in a conventional car that gets 30 mpg.

If you drive 15,000 miles a year, that’s $1,350 in savings.

The real test will come a few years down the road, when the LEAF’s lithium-ion batteries start to age and wear down. Like your sad old second-generation iPod that will barely get you through a whole plane flight now, the LEAF will probably start to lose range and power as time goes on. The LEAF’s batteries cost about $9,000 to build. and good luck getting replacement batteries for that price from a Nissan dealer.

Aside from the obvious benefits to the planet in terms of having no tailpipe from which to spew carbon emissions, how long those batteries last is the X-factor that will determine whether the cost of ownership makes owning a pure-electric economically attractive.

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