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Nissan Launches the Leaf; Now Electric Cars Have to Make Their Mark on the Sales Floor

SAN FRANCISCO -- And so the mass-market era of the electric car begins, with the delivery of the world's first Nissan Leaf to an actual customer: Olivier Chalouhi, a venture-backed "connected TV" entrepreneur who lives north of San Francisco in Redwood City.

With his background as a green techie (his previous ride was an electric bicycle) and photogenic family, Chalouhi might appear a marketing choice picked for the photo op, but in fact Nissan insists that he was the very first person to sign up and put down a $99 deposit on the car. The big questions are: why didn't the Chevy Volt get here first, how many Olivier Chalouhis are there, and will the "pragmatic majority" embrace electric vehicles, or EVs?

Technically, this was not the world's first delivery of a Leaf. Another biker, Lance Armstrong, the brand's national spokesman, has had his since September. But that car is a pre-production model, and out of such distinctions grand PR campaigns are based. Nissan is proceeding around the country, celebrating early customers in all of its primary launch markets, including southern California (customer #2 is in San Diego), Arizona, Oregon, Seattle and Tennessee.

The Leaf and Volt are the two highest-profile green cars, and both companies have done a good job of whipping up fervor over their launch. GM may try to incite a similar frenzy. The Volt has been in production since November, but the first car will be auctioned to benefit the Detroit Public Schools Foundation. The top bid as of Monday morning was a whopping $185,000.

According to GM spokesman Rob Peterson, "Our targets have always been production in November, delivery to customers in December. We're right on track, as we expect to ship from the plant soon." He declined to give an exact date, though the car should be released into the wild soon.

Carlos Tavares, chairman of Nissan Americas, described Chalouhi's car as "the first of thousands" and assured anxious customers that all 20,000 reservation holders will have their vehicles by the end of summer. Although the other Carlos, Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn, gets much of the credit for the Leaf, Tavares has been a principal cheerleader from the beginning. Here's Tavares in front of City Hall in San Francisco last Saturday:
The early adopters make good copy, because they're enthusiastic boosters of the Leaf and electric cars in general. They want it to work almost as much as Nissan does, and eagerly discount any worries over "range anxiety" (the Leaf's range varies from 60 to 115 miles, says Paul Hawson, Nissan's product planning manager for sports cars and EVs) or charger station availability.

One of the biggest cheerleaders for the Leaf is California-based Plug-In America, whose vice president, Paul Scott, has even taken a job selling them (he's moved 50 so far). When Nissan handed over the keys to Chalouhi at North Bay Nissan on Petaluma's Auto Row, Plug In America co-founder Marc Geller was on hand to celebrate the moment. He said that divergent paths -- hydrogen, ethanol, biodiesel -- had just "taken peoples' eyes off the prize" of plug-in electric cars.

The challenge, for both GM and Nissan, is not to sell cars to people like Paul Scott or Marc Geller, but to what Leaf chief marketing manager Trisha Jung calls "the pragmatic majority."

Nissan's official position is that 10 percent of car sales by 2020 will be EVs, a category that includes hybrids. According to Jung, the pragmatic majority is the mass-market customer, represented by the 260,000 "hand wavers" that Nissan recorded on its website. How many can be converted to sales?

"The pragmatics are not quite as willing to take risks as the early adopters," Jung said. "They're looking to see the early adopters prove out the EV concept. These people are somewhat green -- they take out the curbside recycling -- but they want the car they buy to be a good value."

The early adopters will spread the word -- good or bad -- about their experience with the Leaf and Volt. Their opinion represents a variable that the carmakers, whatever they spend on marketing, can't control. In the end, the cars have to be good.


Photo: Jim Motavalli