Published February 25, 2011
Rarely has picking up a new car been a media event. But when 31-year-old Olivier Chalouhi of Redwood City, Calif., took delivery of a black hatchback on Dec. 11, it marked a green milestone: He left the Nissan lot in Petaluma driving the first affordable, mass-produced, fully electric car sold in the U.S.
Industry experts say if the Nissan Leaf, and its competitor the Chevy Volt, catch on, it could be the game-changer that President Obama is pushing for -- and that electric car enthusiasts have been waiting for:
"This was a very, very exciting moment for electric car fans, and sort of a signal, sort of a dawn of a new era, so to speak," says Ed Kim, with the Auto Pacific, an industry marketing firm.
For the next three months, Fox News followed Chalouhi, a French-born entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, to see if the Leaf met his expectations. He liked it right away.
"The maintenance is much lower. There's no oil change," he said. "No tailpipe, no gas. It's electric and clean."
He primarily uses the car to drive to work, about 20 miles round trip. In January, having driven over a thousand miles, he still loved his new car, saying the biggest adjustment is the daily 8-hour charge. Chalouhi does it overnight, while he sleeps. The Leaf plugs in to a special charging system he had installed in his garage. He says the process has not been a big deal, and doesn't miss filling up at the gas station.
But by February, he still wasn't sure how far it could go before running out of juice. The Leaf can travel between 80 and 90 miles between charges.
That limited distance has left many car buyers with a fear of being stranded, a sort of "range anxiety." To help boost consumer confidence, the federal government is paying for 2,500 plug-in stations in cities across the country.
The added infrastructure will help. Still, many consumers remain skeptical about whether an electric car will make their lives easier and save them money: Full sticker price for a leaf is between $32,000 and $35,000, though rebates and tax credits are available for early buyers.
Some worry their electric bills will climb, too, though Chalouhi says that has not been the case.
As the technology improves, costs and charging times will come down. Until then, Nissan hopes reviews from satisfied customers like Chalouhi will persuade other car buyers to turn over a new Leaf.