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The Car of the Future

The Tesla Motor Company is building electric cars in Fremont. Is this the beginning of a revolution?


The new Model S.

Images courtesy of Tesla Motors

I punch the accelerator as I whip around the corner onto Mt. Diablo Boulevard and up the long Highway 24 entrance ramp. There’s no one ahead of me, and I’ve got the pedal to the floor, the Diablo magazine office disappearing on my right, hard g-forces of acceleration pushing me deep and low into the leather seat—a seat already so low it was tough to get into the car. The needle on the speedometer zips up over 60 and then 70, and with lots of ramp left, the top speed of 120 is just a few seconds away.

Then my editor, sitting in the passenger seat, yells, “Stop! You’re going to get us arrested.”

The interior of the low-slung, sporty Roadster.Writing for Diablo has its share of perks, but for me, the biggest bonus has been the opportunity to drive cars I’d normally need a slim jim to get into. I’ve taken an open-wheel racing course at Laguna Seca, careened around Infineon Raceway in the 420-horsepower Audi R8, and rumbled through Land Rover’s off-road driving school in Carmel. But the driving experience I’ve been most excited about was getting behind the wheel of a Tesla.

Tesla introduced its Roadster—the car that left my editor shaking in the passenger seat—to the public in 2006. If the Roadster reminds you of a Lotus Elise—which a driving instructor at Infineon told me is the best-handling car you’ll ever see on a track—it’s because Tesla partnered with Lotus on the design. The biggest difference is that this car is all electric. It’s the first consumer car to be powered by a lithium-ion battery that can be recharged from a standard wall outlet. It’s also the first electric car to exceed a range of 200 miles, addressing the biggest consumer fear about electric cars: running out of juice. (This fear persists: A Roadster’s battery allegedly died on the British TV show Top Gear, and Tesla sued the BBC for libel and malicious falsehood, claiming the incident was staged.)

Back to the car’s performance: The Roadster’s electromagnetic drivetrain (it has a single speed gearbox) produces up to 300 horsepower and propels it from zero to 60 in less than four seconds. With the styling of a Lotus, a power-to-weight ratio comparable to a Porsche 911, and its revolutionary motor, this isn’t just a supercar; it’s the car of the future. Of course, as the Roadster retails for more than $100,000, it’s been pretty rare to see a Tesla on the road. But that’s about to change.

The Roadster’s sleek profile, which is reminiscent of a Lotus Elise.

This year, Tesla is discontinuing the Roadster and beginning to roll out cars that are more accessible to the general public. The first is the Model S, a full-sized sedan with a base model that starts at just under $50,000 (after a federal tax credit).

“Model S will do everything a BMW or Audi can do, better,” says Ricardo Reyes, the vice president of communications at Tesla Motors.

While various option packages can take the price close to six figures, even the base Model S pushes electric cars into a new arena: more practical than the Roadster, but more appealing in terms of style and performance than competitors such as the Nissan Leaf. Tesla will soon expand further into the market with the Model X, a crossover SUV the company unveiled in February and will begin producing in late 2013, and the proposed BlueStar, a mass-market vehicle expected to go into production in 2015 that will sell for around $30,000.

Tesla Motors CEO and cofounder Elon Musk, a native of  South Africa and founder of PayPal.

Tesla is due to begin delivering the Model S in June. About 8,000 customers have placed reservations for the car, and the 2012 signature model is already sold out. When you get a look at the car, it’s easy to see why. While not quite the performance vehicle the Roadster is, the base Model S still makes it from zero to 60 in 6.5 seconds, and the sport model does it in 4.4.

Nevertheless, the car’s performance is overshadowed by its sleek design. The body has smooth, beautiful lines, courtesy of designer Franz von Holzhausen, who is renowned for his work as director of design at Mazda as well as his work on the new Beetle for Volkswagen. Inside the car, an enormous 17-inch, hi-res touch screen, which Motor Trend referred to as an “iPad on steroids,” dominates the center console. Top to bottom, inside and out, the Model S is a wonder of design.

A Model S being assembled at Tesla’s Fremont factory, formerly the NUMMI Plant. Tesla is building the Model S, and other future models, right here in the East Bay. In 2010, the company purchased the NUMMI plant in Fremont, which is famous for being the first car factory in the United States to operate its assembly line like a Japanese manufacturer. Originally a notoriously inefficient GM plant that closed in 1982, NUMMI reopened in 1984 as a partnership between Toyota and GM, with many GM workers rehired and some of them sent to Japan to learn Toyota’s production system. The plant operated for 25 years, producing nearly eight million vehicles, before GM pulled out in 2009. Toyota ceased production there in April 2010 and shortly thereafter agreed to a partnership with Tesla.

Now, the factory is once again a hotbed of innovation. The company plans to hire 1,000 new factory employees by the end of 2012, workers who will be bringing a far more efficient, environmentally friendly car into the world. Tesla autos are zero-emission vehicles, and even considering the electricity burned to charge the battery, they leave far smaller footprints than cars with a standard internal combustion engine. From “well-to-wheel,” meaning what it takes to convert crude oil or natural gas to the actual distance covered by the car, a Tesla Roadster is roughly twice as energy efficient as even the hybrid Toyota Prius.

“Tesla absolutely believes that electric cars are the future,” says Reyes. “Our goal is to accelerate the world’s transition to electric mobility with a full range of increasingly affordable electric cars.” Reyes cites a J.D. Power and Associates study that expects there will be 159 hybrid and electric vehicle models available for purchase in the U.S. market by 2016, up from 31 in 2009.

It may not be a flying DeLorean powered by a Mr. Fusion nuclear reactor, but Tesla is proving that the future is here.


The Electric Company

Tesla has taken the electric car from pipe dream to reality, but it’s not the only game in town. Several other companies are producing electric vehicles of their own. Here’s a glance at a few of the options on the market. (Prices do not account for a federal tax rebate that can be as much as $7,500.)

Chevy Volt

Power train: Series Hybrid, meaning the car runs entirely electrically for the first 35 miles, then a 1.4 liter engine takes over to charge the battery.
Performance specs: 149 horsepower, 273 foot- pounds of torque.
Range: 410 miles.
Price: From $39,145.

Fisker Karma

Power train: Series Hybrid, runs 50 miles electrically, before the 2.0 liter turbocharged engine takes over.
Performance specs: 403 horsepower, 959 foot-pounds of torque.
Range: Up to 300 miles.
Price: From $102,000.

Ford Focus Electric

Power train: 100 percent electric.
Performance specs: 143 horsepower, 184 foot-pounds of torque.
Range: 100 miles.
Price: From $39,200.

Nissan Leaf

Power train: 100 percent electric.
Performance specs: 107 horsepower, 207 foot-pounds of torque.
Range: 100 miles.
Price: From $35,200.

Tesla Model S

Power train: 100 percent electric.
Performance specs: Figures not yet released for the base model.
Range: 160 miles. (300 for the sport model.)
Price: From $57,400.

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