The first stirrings of Leaf mania

PETALUMA, Calif. -- Good media events have the ability to manufacture good vibes. But there was clearly something more going on last Saturday morning at the photo-op in Petaluma, Calif., where Nissan dealer Greg Dexter handed over the keys to the first electric Leaf to be retailed in the world. It was something beyond the control of Nissan North America's public relations and marketing teams.

Call it a sensation. Or at least, the beginning of one.

Whatever skepticism you might harbor about the emerging electric-car market, you would have to admit that, judging from the spectators who showed up at Dexter's dealership, the EV crowd is a passionate bunch. This was a cheering section of people who had gotten up on a Saturday morning and drove, in some cases, the equivalent of the width of Connecticut to watch somebody else buy a car.

Some were there just out of kinship – “I'm in line to get a Leaf,” one man told me. “I just wanted to come see it.” Another man told me he had traveled to Northern California from Tennessee on his own dime to witness the handing-of-the-keys.

There was some echo of “Dude, where's my car?” as smiling would-be Leaf owners found themselves in Dexter's parking lot face-to-face with Carlos Tavares, chairman of Nissan Americas and quizzed him about future deliveries. As he moved among the fans, Tavares repeated over and over that Nissan is undertaking the electric car's production launch slowly and cautiously and will not be hurried. They didn't seem to mind.

There is a palpable, grass-roots excitement about all this. When you encounter it, it will remind you of the earliest, weirdest days of Saturn, when vacationers might drive from Minnesota or Kansas to Spring Hill, Tenn., just to see the factory that built their car.

This week, Nissan has been rolling from city to city to make more ceremonial Leaf deliveries. Presumably, the company is simply trying to demonstrate that the slow-arriving car is real and is really arriving. But to EV-leaning consumers, I suspect the effect they're really having is to stir up even more mania.