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Tesla has room to grow with the Model S sedan, Calif. factory

Tue, 04 Oct 2011

We got a brief ride in a prototype of the Tesla Model S all-electric sedan, and as far as we could tell from the passenger seat, it seemed like a luxury performance bargain for just $57,400. Of course, being just a passenger means any evaluation is more or less just a guess.

We should get to drive one of them sometime before the fully finished models go on sale next summer and then we will have a more definitive take on the car. But for now, so far so good.

Before we even crawled inside, we liked the look of the four-door hatchback, all svelte lines and subtly flowing fenders. It seems to blend the best elements of Aston Martin and Jaguar with those of BMW and Maserati. The hybrid electric Fisker Karma might be the only car that can compete with it in terms of cool cachet and eco chic (there's a banana-leaf dashboard!).

The passenger seat in which we sat offered plenty of space all around, much more so than, say, in a Rapide. The back seat was full-size, too, better than that of a Mercedes-Benz CLS.

The digital instrumentation reduced clutter behind the steering wheel while the 17-inch touch screen in the center console will impress owners of plasma televisions. Even the door handles operated with a technological elegance not seen outside of a Bond movie--touch them and they extend out toward your hand to be opened.

We had to remind ourselves that the drivetrain is as unique as the rest of the car. The fact that it's all electric seemed almost an afterthought, as this shape could fit in with any of the best luxury cars offered today.

When they wheeled the first one up next to a large group of visitors outside the Tesla factory in Fremont, Calif., there were those who didn't even notice its arrival, so stealthy is the car's near-silent electric drivetrain. The powerful AC induction motor provides 306 lb-ft of torque from zero up to 7,000 rpm. The inverter, motor and single-speed reduction gearbox are all packaged between the rear wheels. With no motor up front, there is greater opportunity to design in perfect balance, especially considering that the battery case is a huge, flat rectangle bolted directly under the bottom of the car.

The body is all aluminum. The weight of the body-in-white and curb weight of the finished car were not available to us, at least not from any of the executives we spoke with. Even the weight differences of the three available battery packs--which provide driving range of 160 miles, 230 miles and 300 miles--is still being sorted out.

Our ride consisted of a short slalom, a quick launch and a few laps of the tightly banked test track on the factory grounds. We're guessing, but was that understeer in the slalom? The car felt a little heavy, not as tossable as a BMW 5-series and perhaps set up with a spring/shock combination we would have tweaked just a bit for softer jounce and easier rebound. How much can you guess from a few minutes in the passenger seat in a parking lot? Suspension tuning on this Beta prototype is supposed to be 80 percent there, but it's not by any means finalized. Maybe if they'd let us drive we could have gotten a better feel for it all.

Acceleration certainly felt more than adequate. The standard Model S is supposed to get to 60 mph in either 5.4 seconds or 5.6 seconds, depending on whom you ask, and there will be a performance version that can unleash a 4.5-second time. We look forward to driving a production version ourselves.

Just as interesting as the car was the factory in which it will be built. Tesla bought the old New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. plant from the defunct General Motors/Toyota joint venture for $42 million. Another $17 million got Tesla tons of leftover machinery inside. Then Toyota bought $50 million in Tesla stock, in effect giving Tesla miles and miles of assembly line and millions of dollars worth of machinery for pretty much next to nothing. (There are other ways to look at the transaction, but that's our take.)

Tesla gave us a tour of the sprawling facility and we found most of it is empty. You don't need as much machinery to produce 20,000 Teslas a year as you do to crank out millions of Geo Prizms.

So the most impressive thing about the Tesla factory is the empty space. You could hold the 24 Hours of Le Mans full-scale indoors here. Even the parts Tesla is using offer huge swaths of factory floor--all newly painted--between each of the machines. They use strand cruiser bicycles and razor scooters to get around inside. It's like a starter kit-car factory from Mattel.

But we met many of the principals and saw where all of the work is going to be done, and by golly, they might just pull this whole thing off! Now, the only thing left is for 20,000 people a year worldwide to buy a luxury electric car. With the price of gasoline continuing to rise, increasing environmental concern among an increasingly larger segment of buyers, and with government regulations worldwide demanding ever-cleaner cars, Tesla could be positioned in just the right spot at just the right time. With plenty of room for expansion.

By Mark Vaughn