With their relatively high prices, electric cars and hybrids have struggled to gain a foothold in the U.S. market. Automakers are hoping that lowering prices will spur sales of the all-electric Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt extended range plug-in hybrid.  

The Associated Press reports, "Nissan is offering cheap leases and big discounts on the Leaf because of slow sales of the all-electric car." According to the AP, in August, Nissan offered discounts that were $2,400 more than the discounts on the Leaf in January. The Leaf currently leases for as low as $219 a month for 36 months in some areas.

The 2012 Nissan Leaf. Photo courtesy of Nissan.

"Leaf sales in the United States are down 56 percent from April through August, and down 31.5 percent this calendar year," writes Reuters. They add that "General Motors Co's Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid car has come up short of expectations, forcing the U.S. automaker to idle the plant that makes the car." The AP reports that GM has been discounting the Volt by up to $10,000.

According to sales data from Automotive News (subscription required), Nissan only sold 685 Leaf models in August, the most recent month for which sales data is available. That's a 50 percent drop in sales from August of 2011. Chevrolet sold 2,831 Volt models in August 2012, up from just 302 in August of 2011.  However, the Volt was in limited release in 2011, which explains the low sales. Sales for both the Volt and the Leaf trail the Toyota Prius, which sold 21,111 models in August of 2012. This year's release of the Prius Plug-in, which operates in much the same way as the Chevy Volt does, could negatively impact both Volt and Leaf sales.

The Volt and Leaf discounts don't include up to a $7,500 federal tax credit for buying an electric car. If you’re interested in buying a Leaf, which starts at $35,200 (before destination fees) and are able to get the full $3,250 in discounts, the price would drop to $31,950. If you then applied the full federal tax savings to the price of the car, the price would bottom out at $24,450, which is close to the price of a Nissan Altima coupe.

[Interested in a Leaf or other Nissan? Check out the current Nissan Deals.]

The Chevrolet Volt starts at $39,145. Combining the $10,000 discount the AP is reporting with the full $7,500 federal tax credit effectively lowers its price to $21,645. That's a lower price than the Chevrolet Malibu. Chevrolet is also offering zero-percent financing for up to 72 months on the 2012 Volt. The 2013 Volt is available for lease at $299 per month for 36 months with $1,529 due at signing.

[Interested in a Volt or other Chevy? Check out the current Chevrolet deals.]

Car makers have tried to convince buyers that electric cars are a good deal because of their lower operating costs. Since electricity tends to be cheaper than gas, the cost per mile to drive a Leaf or a Volt is much lower than driving a conventional car. Still, because electric cars tend to be priced so much higher than gasoline-powered cars, it takes a while for consumers to see the savings. When the purchase price of an electric or plug-in hybrid car is less than a similar gasoline-powered car, however, the savings begin for buyers immediately. If you're looking to save some money on gas, huge discounts mean now is a good time to consider a Nissan Leaf or Chevrolet Volt.

Shopping for an electric car or hybrid? Check out the U.S. News rankings of this year's best cars. Then, look for a great deal on a new car by checking out this month’s best car deals. You can also find the best local prices in the area by using our Best Price Program. Also, be sure to follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest.