SAN FRANCISCO — The polar bear had big black claws, just as real polar bears do. And just as he does in the TV ads, this polar bear was giving the Nissan Leaf electric car (white like him) a big bear hug. The scene was the plaza in front of San Francisco’s City Hall, and Nissan had taken it over to celebrate the delivery of the first Leaf to the first customer, Olivier Chalouhi, a tech entrepreneur from Redwood City. Here, a bit shellshocked by all the media attention, Chalouhi talks about the luck of the draw:

One down and 20,000 to go. That’s the number of people who put down $99 to make a Leaf reservation, and Nissan says they’ll all have their cars by the end of the summer. Many of these people are the “early adopters” that California has in great numbers — young, tech-savvy, possessed of disposable income (the Leaf costs $32,780 before rebates after all) and very green.

Here are six things I learned about the Leaf as it enters the marketplace, at long last:

1. The Leaf is fun to drive: I piloted a red one from Petaluma to downtown San Francisco, my first extended drive after some short runs in New York. The Leaf is really fun to drive, and effortless. It’s almost too quiet — you can’t hear the electric motor, or even the nifty sound dialed in to warn pedestrians. Steering, ride, cabin comfort, all are up to mass market standards, and maybe a bit above. The onboard interface is awesome. You don’t need an EV training course — just get in and go. I didn’t drive the car far enough to measure the critical factor of range, but Nick Chambers of got 116.1 miles out of a charge. Other drivers have ranged from 60 to 110 miles. The official range of the Leaf is 73 miles, says the EPA, which also rates it at 99 mpg equivalent.

2. The cell phone app is really cool: Using some really great graphics, it allows the owner to pre-heat or pre-cool the cabin with the touch of a button, and stop or start a charge. You can also get information on how far your ongoing charge has progressed, and how many miles of travel that charge will give you. GPS allows you to find a charging station near you, and even determine if it’s occupied or not.

3. True blue: Among the early orders, the sky blue color seen in most of the Leaf image advertising is proving most popular, followed by silver and red, with black in last place, Marketing Manager Tricia Jung tells me. Also popular is the $940 SL package that includes a back-up camera, fog lights, a cargo deck cover — and a solar panel that trickle-charges an accessory battery. I think it’s the solar panel they want. It doesn’t do a whole lot, but it’s pretty symbolic.

4. The Leaf will be heavily marketed: You've already seen the print ads everywhere, and that clever TV campaign with the polar bear. I actually met the polar bear (see photo at right), and he turned out to be quite a showman. I also talked to Steve Amstrup, the chief scientist for Polar Bears International, and he told me that melting sea ice could make polar bears extinct in the wild by 2050. "They're dependent on hunting seals from sea ice, but the ice is melting because of climate change. And as the sea ice goes, so goes the polar bear."

5. Fast charging?: Well, that’s optional. Under the cute charging flap on the nose of the Leaf is a 220-volt port and a second blank that can accommodate the 480-volt “fast charger” that will get the Leaf ready to do battle in just 30 minutes (as opposed to the four hours of 220). Some Leafs are special “E” models that have the actual 480-volt port, adapted to the Japanese CHAdeMO standard. Those cars will be delivered to launch markets, including Southern California and Tennessee, that are part of the federally supported EV Project. Government money is paying for 300 fast chargers in those special markets, where lucky consumers will also be able to snare a free home charger worth $2,000.

6. Cheap miles: Paul Hawsom, Nissan’s knowledgeable product planning manager for electric vehicles, says the Leaf will cost just 2.6 cents per mile on the road, or $396 over $15,000 miles. A comparable 25-mpg gas car running on $3 a gallon gas (just try to find that this week) would cost 12 cents a mile, or $18,000 over that same 15 years. Of course, before rebates it also costs about double the price of a new 2010 Honda Civic DX. So don’t leave your Leaf in the garage — the more you drive it, the quicker you’ll amortize that purchase price. The Leaf isn’t for everybody, but don’t decide you can’t afford it until you factor in the various rebates, including a $7,500 federal income tax credit that everyone gets, and a $5,000 rebate if you’re lucky enough to live in California.

Other factors worth looking at are the 220-volt charger installation and whether you live with the limited range. Early data shows that most people are buying their Leafs as second cars, so getting to grandma’s house in the next state won’t be all that much of an issue.

By the way, a new owner for the first Chevy Volt will be decided soon — the car is going to the winner of a charity auction benefiting the Detroit Public Schools Foundation. If you think you can top a bid of $185,000, take a look.

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