And It’s Only Twelve Years Late
I first laid eyes on a Tesla in 2006. On my way past the booths, tents, and displays of the automakers and specialty houses to the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, I saw a car that looked suspiciously like a Lotus Elan. That turned out to be close, as I learned that this was the rumored prototype sports car riding on that very chassis, stretched and modified to accomodate 6,831 lithium-ion laptop batteries, a single electric motor, and the requisite control electronics.
Tesla Roadster Prototype, on the path to the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, 2006.
I was as skeptical of the next guy. The technical difficulties of building a car that had enough range to calm the fears of buyers, and adapting new battery technology to a car seemed tough enough. Add to that the fact that the car market tends to eat automotive start-ups and spit them out unmercifully (Tucker, Bricklin, DeLorean), a reality that had been demonstrated too many times.
Two and a half years later, Tesla had opened a showroom a block off the route to my credit union. I stopped in, handed the manager my card, and before I knew it, I was rocketing up the onramp to the 405 freeway in the quickest car I’d ever driven. I was reminded of Lieutenant Hiller, the Will Smith character in Independence Day, the first time he flew the alien spacecraft. “I gotta get me one of these!”
The Tesla Roadster’s acceleration is instantaneous and unrestrained, the product of the character of an electric motor, which unlike an internal combustion engine, needs no build-up of rpms to generate thrust. That’s why your correspondent is fighting to suppress an evil grin.
If the Roadster laid to rest the notion that electric cars were glorified golf carts, the Model S will have BMW M5 owners nervously checking their rear-view mirrors. Road & Track magazine tested the two and they recorded identical 4.1 second zero-to-sixty times. Braking distance was slightly shorter than an Aston Martin V8 Vantage, while cornering power was the same as a Jaguar XFR. This is a car that needs no excuses for its performance.
No Hassles. No. Really!
The Santa Monica Boulevard location now services Teslas, and the showroom now occupies a storefront on the Third Street Promenade, just up the way from an Apple Store, which is the model for Tesla’s marketing strategy. They sell them like the other Silicone Valley entrepreneur sells their products – directly. There are no dealers to act as middlemen. That means Tesla hires the personnel and controls the sales process.
It also eliminates the dealer markup. Some dealers have complained that this is unfair, and in Texas they’ve prohibited Tesla from selling their own cars. That’s Texas’ loss. Anyone with nearly $100,000 to pay for a car will just fly up to OKC or over to Albuquerque, and Texas will lose out on a hefty chunk of sales tax.
Among the outside the box ideas that drive the Tesla’s design is to think of it not as a conventional car, but as a system. That led to the use of a gigantic 17″ configurable touch-screen for most control functions. Testers report it is user-friendly and easily mastered.
It’s instructive to contrast Tesla’s approach to a greener luxury car to that of Fisker (below, at 2012 Los Angeles International Auto Show). Fisker emphasized styling. Tesla emphasized engineering. Fisker farmed out much of their engineering. Tesla used its own engineers. Fisker extended the range of their car with an internal combustion generator (powered by a Chevrolet four-cylinder). Tesla extends the range of their car with huge batteries and strategically located dual-power “supercharging” stations that can give you a free half charge while you grab a bite.
The top image shows the main reason why, even though the Tesla S weighs more than two and a quarter tons, it still handles like the Lotus that formed the basis of the Roadster. All the battery mass, and most of the rest of the chassis components (including the motor shown below it) are located below the wheel center lines, for a center of gravity seemingly lower than a rattlesnake. That motor, in 85 kW-h “Performance” form, produces 420 horsepower, and 443 pound-feet of torque, a little more than a 2012 Corvette Grand Sport’s 6.2 liter V8, but in this case it’s all available instantly and almost silently, from a dead stop, at the press of the accelerator.
Third Party Praise
Winning annual awards from various publications (Motor Trend – Car of the Year, Automobile – Automobile of the Year), as the Tesla S did, is great for a car’s reputation. But there’s often a nagging suspicion that the car they tested was a ringer, snuck in by the factory, who provide “press cars” for all the major publications.
Consumers’ Union, on the other hand, is not beholden to anyone for advertising in its Consumer Reports magazine. They buy their cars the same way you and I do, and they do it anonymously. Moreover, they are not known for extravagant praise, and mild enthusiasm for them is high praise indeed.
Usually it’s features like the Tesla’s front luggage compartment (above) and optional third row seats (rear-facing, and for kids only) that draw kudos from Consumer Reports.
Yet the testers at Consumer Reports seem to have had trouble finding anything wrong with the Tesla. On their 100 point scale, the car scored 99, with performance equal to competitively priced BMW 7-Series, Jaguar XJ and Porsche Panamera V8s. My own inspection revealed some interior surfaces that seemed out of place in a $60,000 car, let alone one that goes for $100,000. But that’s the one percent.
What of those who complain that a $100,000 car that’s nearly perfect is no news, and the great mass of people who struggle to buy, fuel, insure and maintain a used Dodge Neon who may ask, why should they care?
The answer is that Audi, BMW, Corvette, Jaguar, Lexus, Mercedes, Porsche, et al are not going broke selling $100,000 cars, all of which fart 60% – 75% of the fuel they use out the exhaust as noise and heat. If an enterprising guy like Elon Musk can build a car that competes successfully with them without burning a drop of fossil fuel or spewing one gram of pollution, that’s good news.
And think of Europe, where they are envious of our cheap $4.00 a gallon gas (Yes, whatever you think, our gas is extraordinarily cheap.), distances are measured in hundreds of miles (okay, kilometers) instead of thousands, and where a car that runs on electricity increasingly generated by alternative energy, is very attractive.
Imagine the rest of the world (China, anyone?) getting in line for a chance to buy a car made by American workers in the USA! Can you get behind it now?