If the Tesla Model S lacks any conspicuous electric-car characteristic -- no obvious charging port, for example -- it's by design. The five-door Signature Series sedan, which heavily subsidized Tesla Motors began delivering in small quantities on June 22, looks rather conventional in the same appealing vein as recent Jaguars and Audis. It has a long and low hood, a virile stance on 21-inch wheels, and a fastback sweeping to a subtle spoiler on the high tail. If this is underwhelming, without a hint of the self-obviousness of General Motors EV1, for instance, that's too bad.
"We don't want to scare people off the reservation," the nattily dressed design chief Franz von Holzhausen said during our visit. "As we cement the mind-set of Tesla as a brand, we can be more playful." Referring to the bizarre three-wheeler that more recently carried the torch for battery-electric cars, he added, "The Aptera route is a challenging way to go, right out of the box."
So if anyone does have the heebie-jeebies, it's not over styling but the the half-billion dollars in federal loans, state tax breaks, and bargain-priced factory space that Tesla has obtained. This is particularly true given the fact that Solyndra, the bankrupt solar-energy company that got even more DOE money, is found just two miles away. Tesla's chief technical officer JB Straubel, who comes from Wisconsin and wears perhaps the only white dress shirt in the Silicon Valley, said he saw the fountain at Solyndra still gurgling; he regularly exhorts his engineers to ask whether the next expenditure is necessary.
Nevertheless, what Tesla is doing is very expensive as well as being slightly impudent, and it reminds us of the Bugattis and Millers and Cords of the world. This means bespoke rather than commodity parts, a vertically integrated production process featuring numerous assembly innovations, and a retail strategy that lands somewhere between the Hare Krishnas' panhandling in airports and the Snap-on truck heading for a bachelor party.
Beyond all this, there's the fact that the Model S, with its anachronistically simple nomenclature, now is in customers' hands. The ceremonial day that began with a factory tour and brief drives for reporters ended with the handing of electronic keys to five buyers. Starry-eyed at the prospect of being the first Model S owners in their chapters of the Sierra Club, they had put down deposits of $40,000 and waited for their Signature models, priced at $97,900.
What did they get for the money? We were given eight minutes behind the wheel of a test car to find out. Touching the recessed door handle, we watched it automatically extend for use. "You should get kind of goose-bumpy," von Holzhausen said later when we commented on this novelty. Pulling this handle, we slid into our red car, inhaling the rich aroma of Nappa leather upholstery and noting the low seating position. We gaped at the most overpowering feature, namely, the glossy, sports-bar-sized central touchscreen, which has more graphical modes than magicians have hats and rabbits. The driver's instrument display also made us blink and gape. There are no bezels, indicators, counters, gauges, or needles. Watchmaker Edmond Jaeger would weep at the sight.
Awakened by a tap of the brake pedal, the Model S crept forward after a light pull on the column-mounted drive selector. (Lacking a transmission tunnel, the car offers instead a long flat tray that readily accepted a camera with zoom lens, a pen, and a notebook.) With the 85 kW-hour battery comprising over 7000 cells, the Signature Performance model is capable of 300 miles at 55 mph and 0 to 60 mph in 4.4 seconds; upon turning onto the access road between the factory and Interstate 880, we spurred it and quickly found ourselves at 80 mph. Slowing for a left-hand sweeper, we listened to our front passenger, a Tesla employee, extol the lack of body roll, which he ascribed to the low center of gravity that's a byproduct of the huge battery. (Straubel would only say later that it's heavier than the 992-pound pack in the Tesla Roadster.) Frankly, we didn't notice anything exceptional about the cornering in comparison to, say, an Audi A7 or Fisker Karma; instead, the most evident characteristic is the aggressively calibrated energy recapture system, which chewed back at the road, rapidly slowing the car as soon as our right foot lifted. The other major finding had come during an earlier demonstration lap, when we sat comfortably in back and listened to the sniveling of the rear-mounted power inverter. But further impressions of this formidable automobile can only be returned after a longer test.
Will the Model S do anything to change the perception that electric cars are playthings for slimousine liberals who want access to the HOV lane and preferred parking spots? After our sampling, we see the opposite happening. And what happens to Tesla when the first 10,000 acolytes receive their servings? The plan: produce 20,000 units in 2013. We stood with a member of Tesla's communications team when CEO Elon Musk, tall and sleek in sports jacket and jeans, ambled past us on the factory floor, but even on this festive day his brow was furrowed. He might have been thinking about the additional billions of dollars needed as Tesla looks to expand its portfolio of electric vehicles to the Model X crossover and a future mass-market car priced around $30,000. "A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool," William Shakespeare wrote. On which side would Musk place himself?
2013 Tesla Model S
Motor: Three-phase, four pole AC induction motor with copper rotor
Power: 416 hp/310 kW
Torque: 443 lb-ft/600 Nm
Steering: Electronic power-assisted
Suspension, Front: Double-wishbone with active air springs
Suspension, Rear: Independent multi-link with active air springs
Brakes: Four-wheel disc, ventilated, with ABS
L x W x H: 196.0 x 77.3 x 56.5 in
Wheelbase: 116.5 in
Track F/R: 65.4/66.9 in
Weight: 4647 lb (base Model S)
0-60 MPH: 4.4 sec (mrf. est.)
Top Speed: 130 mph
EPA Mileage: 89 MPGe