Japanese start buying affordable electric cars

April 1, 2010 4:30:57 AM PDT
Japan's first mass-market electric car went on sale in showrooms Thursday as the futuristic technology becomes more affordable amid a burgeoning price war. The four-seater bubble-shaped i-MiEV from Mitsubishi Motors Corp., Japan's fifth-biggest automaker, costs 2.8 million yen ($30,500) after government incentives are figured into the price of 4 million yen ($43,000).

Proud i-MiEV buyer Chitoshi Okunuki, 72, placed an advance order at a higher price in August and was thrilled at Mitsubishi's decision Tuesday to cut the price by 620,000 yen ($6,700). That came the same day rival Nissan Motor Co. announced it will take orders for its own electric car, the Leaf.

"I'm so happy," said Okunuki, who runs a convenience store, during a visit to a Mitsubishi showroom. "It's so quiet, and there are no emissions."

With concerns about the environment growing, electric vehicles -- long an expensive, experimental technology used in Japan mainly by government-related groups -- are suddenly all the rage.

The key to their becoming widespread is certain to be pricing, and that is likely to continue a downward slide as competition intensifies.

Nissan, Japan's No. 3 automaker, said the Leaf, due to go on sale in December, will cost 3.8 million yen ($40,500) but that will fall to 3 million yen ($32,000) with government incentives.

The Leaf gets even cheaper in the U.S. at just over $25,000 because of a $7,500 federal tax credit for electric vehicles. Mitsubishi says it got about 2,000 advance orders in Japan for the i-MiEV, which stands for Mitsubishi innovative Electric Vehicle. It is based on the company's gasoline-powered "i" minicar.

Also this week, Chinese automaker BYD started retail sales of its new electric car, the F3DM, for the equivalent of $25,000. Ford Motor Co. is planning an all-electric Focus compact car for sale in late 2011.

Toyota Motor Corp., the world's biggest automaker, is planning an electric car for 2012. Prices have not been announced, but they are likely to be more within reach than the two-seater Tesla Roadster's $100,000.

Yasuaki Okamoto, auto analyst with Okasan Securities Co. in Tokyo, said Nissan, with partner Renault SA of France, was taking the lead in the pricing war in electric vehicles.

"It's a big trend that has been set into motion," he said. "The two bottleneck issues for electric vehicles are pricing and the availability of recharging stations."

The i-MiEV, with a cruising range of 160 kilometers (100 miles) on a single charge, can be recharged from a regular home outlet but that takes 14 hours.

It takes 30 minutes to recharge from a more powerful charging station. But in Japan there are only 60 nationwide.

All that doesn't bother Okunuki a bit. He was excited trying out the charging outlet on the side of the car, located where the gas cap would be in a regular car.

"It's best if the charging stations were everywhere like a gas stand," he said. "But I don't need to go far. I'm old." He can't walk off with his car just yet. It is due to be delivered by the end of May.

Mitsubishi plans to sell 4,000 i-MiEV vehicles in Japan for the fiscal year through March 2011 and 5,000 more overseas, mainly in Europe. Sales begin in North America in 2011, according to Tokyo-based Mitsubishi.

Nissan is hoping to produce 50,000 Leafs worldwide in the car's first year.

Tsuyoshi Mizuochi, who manages a Mitsubishi dealership, said the i-MiEV has become a relatively easy sell since owners will enjoy lower costs in the long run because electricity is cheaper than gasoline.

"We would like to push the theme that we are protecting the earth," he said. "We are at a turning point when electric vehicles are going to become more commonplace."

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