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One Of The First Leafs To Hit The Ground

— Donna Dipaolo registered with Nissan to buy a Leaf in January, 2010. She reserved a car a year ago. This past January she ordered it and, about a week ago, she actually got the thing. Nissan’s all-electric car has had very few sales in the U.S. But Leafs are coming off the production line slowly and most of the 20,000 North Americans who have reserved the cars are still waiting for them to arrive.

Donna’s Leaf is a rusty red, which is the color she ordered. It’s a roomy sedan (by my standards) and it actually has a lot more trunk space than the Toyota Prius. Donna says this is because there’s no gas tank to take up room in the back of the car.

We went for a drive in downtown San Diego last Friday and I took the wheel for a few blocks. The Leaf emits a faint high-pitched hum as you press the accelerator. Otherwise it feels and performs a lot like a gas-powered car. If you expect something that's radically different, you’re disappointed.

That said, my driving review is fairly positive. The Leaf feels stable on the road. Performance is fine and the handling is sure.

Donna lives walking distance from where she works, San Diego City College, and she’s a flyweight when it comes to car use. She guesses she typically drives a little over 2,000 miles a year. Even though she’d had her Leaf for a week, when I spoke with her, it was still running on the initial charge from the car dealership. Her battery gauge showed she had about half a “tank.” Nissan says that means she can drive another 50 miles before she runs out of electricity.

All this brings up a sore point with Donna: The difficulty she’s had in finding a place to charge the damn car.

A company called ECOtality has partnered with SDG&E to install charging stations, called Blinks, around San Diego. I attended a news conference last August where the plan was announced, but it sounds like Blinks are still hard to find.

Donna said she can’t find one near her home. A map on the ECOtality website told her there was a charging station at the Wells Fargo Bank in downtown San Diego. But when she went there the employees didn’t know what she was talking about and when she went back to the ECOtality website the map had been taken down.

A local company representative responded to complaints about the lack of charging stations in this recent op-ed story in Voice of San Diego. He says an “escalating number” of charging stations will be delivered this month and next.

Donna’s other problem with charging her car rises from the fact she lives in a condo. She has to convince her homeowners’ association to install a dedicated electrical circuit in the parking garage so she can use her charging station. She says that could cost her $7,000.

The question of whether electric cars will save the planet is a whole other question. For now, we’ll see whether the Leaf, which costs about $34,000, will be a hit with other consumers, not just early adopters like Donna Dipaolo.

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