Tesla Motors is selling an electric luxury sedan, seen here outside the one Chicago-area dealership in Oak Brook.
Updated: September 4, 2012 6:13AM
From the curb, the Tesla Model S does not look radically different from other new cars. Attractive, yes, sleek and streamlined, this one a pleasant gray, with a hatchback and a certain Jaguar-ish quality.
But not the sort of vehicle that has the kiddies pressing their faces to the van window, shrieking “Look! Look!” as it blows past.
Slide behind the wheel, however, as I got the chance to do last week in Oak Brook, and some of its more distinctive features present themselves. There are no physical gauges or buttons — just a screen where the speedometer would be, and, to the right, where a radio would be, a 17-inch diameter flat screen, the largest in any car, according to Tesla. The car has no gas tank, no tailpipe, no engine; in electric cars it’s called a motor.
Electric cars are no longer new — regular readers will recall my blowing around town in a Nissan Leaf last year. But the Tesla Model S is unique, in that it is the first luxury sedan designed from the ground up as an electric car — a necessity, since the company producing it, Tesla Motors, has built only one previous model, its short-lived Roadster.
Indeed, the company is perhaps more interesting than the car. Tesla, founded in 2003, is that rarest of birds — a new independent American car company. And while the initial temptation is to lump it with previous quixotic attempts to start a car company — Tucker, Bricklin, DeLorean — Tesla might be different, in light of the jaw-dropping resume of past successes of its billionaire co-founder, Elon Musk: PayPal, the online payment system; plus SpaceX, a private rocket company, contracted to NASA to supply the International Space Station, and more.
What is Tesla selling? The Model S has an all-aluminum body, a low center of gravity, its motor giving torque that pins you back in the seat when you mash the accelerator.
There’s no key to turn, no button to push. Sitting in the driver’s seat is enough.
“When you sat down in the car, your butt turned it on,” said Shanna Hendriks, Tesla’s communications manager, noting the weight sensor in the seat (and yes, I couldn’t resist the inevitable reply: “It’s been a long time since my butt turned anything on.”)
Range is still an issue. At first I was impressed the Model S advertises a 300-mile range between charges, but that is for its top-of-the-line $85,000 model with a brawnier battery. The basic $57,400 model has a range of 160 miles. Which is more than most drive in a day, but a big part of our love affair with cars is the illusion of endless possibility, and not being certain you can make it to Rockford and back is something of a buzz kill, but one Tesla insists people will get over.
Then there is the stereo volume control.
“It goes to 11,” said Hendriks. “I don’t know if you’re a Spinal Tap fan, but it goes to 11.” This has to be the first cult movie punchline to find its way into automotive design.
“That was Elon Musk’s idea,” she said.
The Model S also has way-cool door handles, smooth oblongs of chrome flush with the door until you touch them, when they gracefully glide out to be opened.
The rear window is small, but the biggest design flaw I noticed is the cup-holders — there are just two, hidden under the center arm rests, which slide back to reveal them, meaning you drive with the point of your elbow sitting on your coffee cup. Hendriks assured me they are working on a console to hold cups out of harm’s way.
If you buy a Model S now, expect delivery around July 2013; you’re behind the 10,000 or so fans who put down deposits three or four years ago. “People have waited a long time for this car,” said Hendriks.
The Tesla business model is also distinctive. There is nothing as 20th century as dealership lots crowded with cars. You can try a Model S — I was permitted 10 minutes behind the wheel — but you aren’t allowed to purchase the car you drive and take it home. This is no impulse buy. Rather, you order the Model S, like kitchen cabinets; pay $5,000 to prove you mean business, then wait three months until the factory is ready to turn its attention to you, when you pony up another $5,000 and specify colors and options.“Every car we sell is custom built,” said Hendriks.
This year, Tesla Motors is making 5,000 cars — intentionally fewer than demand — but next year it plans to produce 20,000.
The cynic in me is tempted to shrug off the Tesla Model S as the new Tucker Torpedo — snazzy but foredoomed. Making cars is a very costly undertaking. Ford has a tough enough time staying in business, and they’ve been doing this for a while. Upstarts can flourish, for a time, then wither. At least up to now. The Oak Brook dealership has a very clean, well-thought-out feel — think the Apple store but for cars. The sense I left with is that while launching a successful American car company — the Model S is made in California — is still a longshot, if anybody can pull it off, these people can.