Whooshing down Highway 101 toward his home in Redwood City from San Francisco on Saturday afternoon, Olivier Chalouhi was a happy man -- the world's first buyer of the all-electric Nissan Leaf to take possession of his new car.

"It's great on the highway," said Chalouhi, the sound of wind, but not the growl of a gasoline engine, audible in the background as he spoke over the phone. "When you accelerate, it sounds like you have a jet engine or a turbine under the hood," the excited new owner said (using a hands-free device on the freeway, of course). "You have to hear it -- it's very futuristic."

Electric car advocates savored the moment Chalouhi climbed into his new Leaf at a Nissan dealership in Petaluma on Saturday as a historic milestone, the first everyday consumer to buy an all-electric car built by a major automaker that was trying to respond to consumer demand rather than a government mandate.

"I think we are looking at the true takeoff of electric cars -- finally," said Marc Geller, the co-founder of Plug In America, a national advocacy group for electric cars, who attended Nissan ceremonies in Petaluma and San Francisco with journalists from as far away as Korea covering the story.

"The most important part of this project is getting cars into the hands of real people, real consumers. Consumers seem to be ahead of both the government and the automakers, in that the demand is outstripping the supply," he said.


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Nissan is marketing the Leaf as the world's first affordable, all-electric car available to the mass market. In the next year, the automaker plans to deliver 50,000 Leafs to buyers in North America, Europe and around the world, although some U.S. buyers are discovering that they may have to wait 10 months or more between placing a first reservation with Nissan and actually receiving their car.

Strong demand

Allen Wood, of Palo Alto, an electric car enthusiast who placed a reservation for a Leaf in August, received an e-mail from Nissan on Friday saying that "the response to this 100 percent electric car has been amazing," and that while he was on track to be able to formally order his Leaf in February, delivery of the car would not be until four to seven months later.

"I didn't expect to get one in February, but I must say the four- to seven-month wait was longer than I thought," Wood said. "I was a little disappointed in that, but I'll still be one of the first to get one."

A Nissan spokesman insisted that deliveries of the Leaf, which has a suggested retail price as low as $25,280 after a $7,500 federal tax credit, have not been delayed.

"We said long ago that we would start sales in December, and that is what we are doing" with the delivery of the first car to Chalouhi on Saturday, said the spokesman, Tim Gallagher. "Most car launches roll vehicles out in phases, and this launch is quite unique. We will fulfill orders at an increasingly growing pace as 2011 begins."

With its zest for technology and environmental protection, the Bay Area is expected to be a hot market for electric cars, and Nissan says it has received more reservations for the Leaf from the Bay Area than any other U.S. region. While Chalouhi, the 31-year old chief technical officer of a San Mateo digital media startup called Fanhattan, would seem to be the ideal example of Nissan's target market, Gallagher said he was selected to be the world's first Leaf buyer only because he was, literally, the first person in line.

Anxious to own

Chalouhi placed his reservation for a Leaf on April 20, the first day that consumers could plunk down a $99 reservation to buy a car. And he was the first person to put in his order for a car just after midnight on Aug. 31, the first day buyers could formally order their preferred model and color. This is Chalouhi's first electric vehicle, and he hasn't even had a car of his own in recent months, as he and his wife shared a car. He plans to use his new Leaf to commute the 10 miles each way to work between Redwood City and San Mateo.

"I felt there was too much attention to me," Chalouhi said of the electric car ceremonies Saturday, in which he was surrounded by a paparazzilike horde of media, and which also included a public event at City Hall in San Francisco. "To my mind, the car is the real deal today. I'm just a lucky guy who managed to be the first one to get one."

Contact Mike Swift at 408-271-3648. Follow him at Twitter.com/swiftstories.