For all the media furor over the 2011 Nissan Leaf and the 2011 Chevy Volt, you'd think that tens of thousands of them were flooding onto our streets each month.

Not so. As of Feb 28, the total sold between both cars was just 1,102, made up of 928 Volts and 174 Leafs.

Now, it may be that those totals won't rise as fast as the makers had planned before the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. Nissan shut down its Japanese plants--including Oppama, which builds the Leaf--and the Volt's transmission is sourced in Japan.

More surchages, for longer

Supplies of both cars could be reduced for months, though their makers are staying away from long-term predictions until they can gauge the impact on supply chains. Dealers, meanwhile, may be able to add surcharges onto Volt and Leaf prices even longer.

2011 Chevrolet Volt drive test, March 2011

2011 Chevrolet Volt drive test, March 2011

Price-gouging on the Volt in particular came up this weekend when we visited our friend Alex Kline, a private detective who lives with his family in San Francisco.

The Volt odyssey

The lease on the family's Honda Odyssey minivan was about to run out, and one kid will head to college this fall, so it was time to downsize.

Kline ran the numbers on a $350-per-month Volt lease, and realized that a 2011 Chevy plug-in actually made financial sense as a commuter car for a journey of 17 miles each way to Marin County and back.

2011 Nissan Leaf at quick-charging station

2011 Nissan Leaf at quick-charging station

And he liked that the lease meant he could get the benefit of the $7,500 Federal income-tax credit for a plug-in purchase right away, because it's factored into the lease cost, rather than waiting until April of next year when he filed his taxes.

Reality strikes

Then reality struck. Kline called no fewer than 10 Chevrolet dealers, none of whom were offering the standard lease terms of $2,500 down and $350 per month.

Markups ranged from several thousand dollars on the purchase price to leases approaching $500 per month. As some have suggested, it's almost as if Federal tax dollars are subsidizing the dealer markups.

The single most audacious quote came from Vallejo Chevrolet, which quoted Kline a lease of $550 per month with $6,000 down, on a 2011 Volt with the premium package (sticker: $44,438) to which the dealership had added a $4,000 markup.

Big donors get big laws

But that's how the open market works.

2011 Honda Insight

2011 Honda Insight

And because auto-dealer political donations have convinced most state legislatures to forbid carmakers from selling directly or even setting prices, GM and Nissan are powerless. Their dealers can legally charge anything they can get.

According to a report today on Plug-In Cars, Nissan dealers too are doing just that. Markups, bidding wars, and the anxiety around the rising price of gasoline mean that the $32,780 base price is little more than a starting point for add-ons, fees, and pure profits.

The benefits of Insight

In the end, Kline gave up on his dream of using cheap grid electricity to power the family's 35-mile daily commute. Sticking with Honda, the family first considered a 2011 Honda Civic compact sedan, at a hard-to-beat cost of $200 a month with nothing down.

2011 Honda Insight

2011 Honda Insight

Unfortunately, the brake lever cut uncomfortably into Kline's right knee. That was a deal-breaker. Upshot: The Kline family will soon take delivery of a 2011 Honda Insight subcompact hybrid, for $230 per month.

It will still save them a lot of money on gasoline--the Odyssey ran about 15 mpg in mixed use, the Insight should deliver 35 mpg--but Kline is hoping that by the time the Insight lease is over, supplies of plug-in cars will be more plentiful.

Meanwhile, he figures this gives him more time to get an electrical sub-meter installed in his garage.

[Plug-In Cars]


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