Electric cars, a hard sell on SUV-loving Long Island, are finding new buyers as automakers offer new models and sweeten deals.
In the next 18 months, six new models will join the 11 already available here.
Sales of electrics have been hampered by short driving ranges, high prices and few public recharging stations. But, with gasoline prices marching steadily upward, the number of electrics is starting to grow.
Statewide, in just the past year, electric car ownership increased fourfold, to almost 4,000, says the state Department of Motor Vehicles. The cars are still a tiny percentage of more than 9 million vehicles of all types in the state. The count excludes golf cart-like "neighborhood" vehicles with federally mandated 25 mph speed limits, and hybrid gasoline-electric cars such as the original Toyota Prius that don't plug in to recharge.
On Long Island, there were only 1,008 electric and plug-in electric-gasoline hybrid vehicles -- whose ability to plug in and recharge distinguishes it from the original Prius gas-electric hybrid -- registered in April, said the motor vehicles department. That's still a tiny portion of the 2.2 million total vehicles here. These electric cars are primarily powered by batteries, which get their juice from 110- and 220-volt recharging stations.
Public officials and environmentalists see electric cars as a way to cut air pollution and reduce dependence on foreign oil. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, an electric car proponent, wants the number of plug-in cars to increase to 40,000 in five years and has proposed spending $50 million on charging stations.
Some owners also like the cars' green credentials.
"It's not a decision to save money, it's a decision to save the environment," said East Hampton corporate trainer Bill Rosenthal, 52, who drives a Chevrolet Volt, an electric car with a gasoline engine aboard to generate electricity when the battery runs down and help propel the car at times. He also owns a Tesla Model S, a luxury sport electric with no backup gasoline engine and a long range between rechargings.
New models on the way
Models due over the next 12 months include the Chevrolet Spark EV subcompact, Volkswagen E-Up!, the BMW i3, Mercedes-Benz B-Class EV, the Kia Soul EV and Volkswagen eGolf.
The $39,000 Volt was the best-seller nationally in June, according to the trade paper Automotive News; just under 2,700 were sold. That's up 53 percent from a year earlier.
Chevrolet says recharging the Volt costs about $1.60 at the national average rate of 12 cents per kilowatt hour of electricity -- a cost that presumably would be 66 percent higher, or $2.66, on Long Island where the Long Island Power Authority charges about 20 cents.
Chevrolet says the Volt's batteries deliver 25 to 50 miles of driving before the gasoline engine has to step in. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates the car gets the equivalent of 98 miles per gallon equivalent in a combination of driving with and without the gasoline engine in operation.
Mark Calisi, owner of Eagle Chevrolet in Riverhead, says he has sold an average of three Volts a month since the car debuted in late 2010, but that interest picked up recently as General Motors began offering cut-rate leases, zero percent financing and rebates of up to $4,000.
Sales of Nissan's Leaf, an electric with no gasoline engine, have tripled nationally this year -- to 9,839 through the end of June -- as Nissan brought out a version that was $6,000 cheaper, or $28,800. Nissan offers leases for the Leaf with payments as low as $199 a month. Nissan won't disclose local sales but said they increased similarly in the New York region.
At Smith Haven Mitsubishi in St. James, owner Brett Saslow says he sold just seven i-MiEV electrics in the 2012 model year, which ended almost a year ago, and no 2013 models. The tiny car lists for about $29,000 -- less a $7,500 federal tax credit -- gets a government estimated 112 "miles per gallon equivalent." "The biggest issue I think is the infrastructure," said Saslow, referring to the shortage of public charging stations.
Mineola neurologist Marlon Seliger, 52, who has been leasing an i-MiEV since December, says it can go about 64 miles between rechargings -- less in winter when he uses the heater. He has access to conventional cars for the occasional long trip. "For the average person," he said, "the only real limitation is the range."
At Nardy Honda in St. James, general manager Rich Lang says the electric version of the Fit, which went on sale in February, did poorly until June 1, when Honda cut the monthly lease payment from $389 to $259. "The day that hit," he said, "the three Fit EVs we had were all sold."
Now the cars are in short supply, said Honda spokesman Chris Naughton in New York. Lang says he expects to get no more than one or two a month from Honda.
Dealer Leo Sternlicht, a principal in Riverhead Toyota and Riverhead Ford, says many of the available electrics are simply too new to have captured much consumer attention. He said his Ford store has sold just a handful of the midsize Fusion Energi plug-in hybrids, which went on sale this year at $38,700, while the Toyota store has sold about 30 Prius plug-in hybrids this year -- versus about three times that many conventional gas-hybrid Priuses that don't plug in.
"You're not going to get people jumping into something new the first few months it's sold, but more and more people are moving towards it," he said of the plug-in. Toyota is offering a three-year cut-rate lease on the plug-in in this area with payments of $219 a month.
Battery warranties offered
The relatively high purchase prices of the Volt and most other highway-worthy electrics are due mainly to battery costs, which are rarely disclosed by automakers. Meanwhile, there are federal income tax credits as high as $7,500, varying by model, to help reduce the retail prices of the cars. LIPA offers a $500 rebate on purchases.
To allay consumer fears over high battery replacement costs, carmakers are offering long warranties -- eight years or 100,000 miles on the Volt battery, for example. Chevrolet hasn't said what it will cost to replace Volt batteries, nor has Toyota for the Prius plug-in or Nissan for the Leaf.
The high purchase costs for most electrics could eventually be recouped in fuel savings. The new Accord plug-in hybrid, on sale since January, illustrates that. At more than $40,000, less a $3,600 federal tax credit, it costs $2,724 more than the most closely equipped conventional Accord, the V-6 Touring sedan.
Based on government fuel economy estimates, the plug-in saves about $1,370 in fuel costs over the most efficient conventional Accord, with a four-cylinder engine, in 15,000 miles of driving.
So, at 15,000 miles a year, the plug-in would take more than two years to pay for itself, assuming no major changes in gasoline prices.
Most electric car owners charge their vehicles at home. Long Island has just 22 public charging stations for electric cars, according to the Greater Long Island Clean Cities Coalition. Some are municipal but most are at Nissan dealerships, strictly for Leaf owners.
"Nassau and Suffolk don't have as many as you need," said Kamal Dorsainville, 38, of Ridge, who leased a Volt from Eagle about six months ago and, with his wife, operates a media production and marketing company for the beauty industry. "But if you go to Manhattan, they're everywhere."
New stations funded recently by the state include 10 to be built by the clean cities coalition at multifamily housing complexes on the Island, 21 by Beam Charging LLC of Roslyn, in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Long Island, and 82 statewide by Leviton Manufacturing Co. Inc. of Melville.
Until the day the infrastructure is in place for plug-in electrics, the market is being sustained by the enthusiasm of owners. Calisi, of Eagle Chevrolet in Riverhead, says many consumers are looking at the Volt based on personal recommendations from current owners. "And that," he said, "is the best kind of advertising."
CARS ON LI*
PURE ELECTRICS: 209
PLUG-IN HYBRIDS: 799
CONVENTIONAL HYBRIDS: 26,504
TOTAL VEHICLES, ALL TYPES: 2.2 million
*As of April 2013
SOURCE: STATE DEPARTMENT OF MOTOR VEHICLES