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To Spark Buyers for Electric Cars, Drop the Price to Nearly $0

Lease deals and tax incentives add appeal to electric cars like the Nissan Leaf.

This car deal sounds too good to be true: Drive a car, almost free.

To entice drivers to try electric-powered cars, auto makers are lowering the price of entry to the zero-emission lifestyle.

A new round of discount leases on mainstream-brand plug-in cars such as the Nissan 7201.TO -1.14% Leaf or Fiat F.MI 0.00% 500e, combined with federal, state and local electric-vehicle incentives, could make a battery-electric car an extraordinarily economical way to get around for drivers. There are two big caveats: Drivers need to live in states offering tax incentives and can’t drive very far in a single day.

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David Walter Banks for The Wall Street Journal

Bronson Beisel got an extra subsidy from Georgia, cutting the cost further.

Electric cars are still a long way from achieving mass appeal. Plug-in cars accounted for less than 1% of total vehicle sales in the U.S. during the first four months of this year, according to data compiled by the website But the flurry of discounts and public subsidies has more consumers refiguring the math. Plug-in sales more than doubled in the first four months of 2013 compared with a year earlier.

Bronson Beisel, 46, says he was looking last fall for an alternative to driving his gas-guzzling Ford Expedition sport utility around suburban Atlanta, when he saw a discounted lease offer for an all-electric Nissan Leaf. With $1,000 down, Mr. Beisel says he got a two-year lease for total out-of-pocket payments of $7,009, a deal that reflects a $7,500 federal tax credit.

As a resident of Georgia, Mr. Beisel is also eligible for a $5,000 subsidy from the state government. Now, he says, his out-of-pocket costs for 24 months in the Leaf are just over $2,000. Factor in the $200 a month he reckons he isn’t paying for gasoline to fill up his hulking SUV, and Mr. Beisel says “suddenly the car puts $2,000 in my pocket.”

Yes, he pays for electricity to charge the Leaf’s 24-kilowatt-hour battery—but not much. “In March, I spent $14.94 to charge the car” and a bit less than that in April, he says. He also got an electric car-charging station installed at his house for no upfront cost.

“It’s like a two-year test drive, free,” he says.

Mr. Beisel works for IBM designing presentations that company sales representatives use to convince clients they’ll save money investing in new technology. He says he did a similar analysis on his family’s lifestyle and concluded that the Leaf’s 73-mile range was plenty for most of his everyday driving.

Auto makers are under mounting state regulatory pressure in about a dozen states to accelerate electric-car sales. California greenhouse-gas rules, for instance, require that, by 2018, some 4.5% of the cars major auto makers sell in the state be “zero-emission” vehicles—that is, no emissions from the car.

By 2025, California’s rules mandate that electric cars account for more than 15% of sales in the state. The Obama administration has backed the California mandate, although it didn’t order similar targets nationwide.

Right now, that sales mandate looks like a marketing Mount Everest.


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