The Tesla Model S may be a silent car, but other automakers will no doubt hear it coming.
In its first crack at a premium sedan, the Silicon Valley electric-car maker has matched or beaten the likes of the Audi A7 or Mercedes-Benz CLS — products of a century of German engineering. Similarly packaged as a sleek four-door coupe, the Model S delivers the performance and polish implied by its $89,770 price.
All that's missing is the roar of internal combustion.
Ask the folks at Tesla Motors Inc. how they pulled this off and they'll say Tesla isn't a car company. It's a tech company, headquartered in a hive of innovation that helped lure the sharp minds who conceptualized the car from an outsider's perspective.
Founded in 2003, Tesla produced its first car in 2008, the two-seat Roadster. It sold about 2,400 of them before halting production last year.
The Model S represents Phase 2 of the Palo Alto company's outsized ambitions. Unlike the Roadster, which was built on the chassis of a Lotus sports car, Tesla built the Model S from scratch. It's a showpiece of the start-up's design prowess, targeting a demanding and well-heeled niche of customers.
The third and crucial phase — if the Model S can secure the company's survival a while longer — will be to create an affordable mass-market car. That's no small feat, given that the electric-car market, littered with past failures, accounts for just one-tenth of 1% of U.S. auto sales. (For all the accolades showered on Nissan's Leaf, the company has sold just 20,000 of the cars since 2010.)
The odds against Tesla will be easier to calculate soon, when the company details sales and earnings at a shareholder's meeting expected in late February. The most recent update came last fall, when Tesla cut its revenue forecast and scaled back 2012 Model S production plans from 5,000 to about half that number.
Just 253 of the sedans had been delivered at that point.
The lowered expectations raised concern that the company will need a new influx of cash this year. The cash that produced the Model S was gathered during the Roadster era. Tesla secured $465 million in U.S. Department of Energy loans and went public on the Nasdaq Stock Market. It also started collecting Model S deposits and sold minority stakes in the company to Toyota and Daimler, the parent of Mercedes-Benz.
Now it's up to the Model S to bring in more cash.
Nearly a week spent in the car's high-tech cockpit suggests that Tesla has a legitimate shot at making automotive history with truly competitive electric cars.
If Tesla is a technology company, the evidence starts with the car's innovative infotainment system. The 17-inch touch screen controls nearly everything — including navigation, stereo, climate control and driving settings. As clear and touch-sensitive as an Apple iPad, the huge screen can easily accommodate multiple functions at once.
You can view the Google Maps-based navigation on one half of the screen while fiddling with radio controls on the other. Or swap the two. Or close one of them and bring up a new function — say, the phone or the Internet browser. Or just expand one function to cover the whole screen.
Contrast that to a car company making technology: Ford has produced its Sync system about as long as Tesla has made cars, and yet Sync remains eons behind in sophistication and ease of use.
But the most impressive technology resides in the guts of the Model S. The car overflows with torque, that delicious byproduct of electric propulsion. Despite a portly curb weight — a comparable Audi A7 weighs about 400 pounds less — the S clears zero to 60 mph in a mere 5.6 seconds.
Our test car, rated at 362 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque, uses an 85-kilowatt-hour battery to power the rear wheels through an electric motor. The battery comes in the premium version of the Model S — the only one currently produced, with a base price of $81,820, including delivery, before any state or federal tax incentives. Additional options on our test car included the tech package, an upgraded sound system and air suspension.
Tesla has promised two less expensive versions of the car with smaller batteries, meaning decreased power and range.
Power in the premium Model S comes from roughly 1,000 pounds of lithium-ion cells — all integrated into the car's floor pan, an innovative setup giving the Model S a low center of gravity and a stiff chassis. The underside of the battery pack forms the underside of the car.
In eager driving, the S doesn't feel exactly light, but it carries its weight well, with no excessive body roll in turns. Drivers can use the touch screen to select one of three different steering modes, although the most aggressive 'sport' setting proved a little too firm in most driving situations.
The brakes on the Model S are plenty strong, and fortunately are not the regenerative variety you'll find on most gas-electric hybrids, which have a mushy, grabby feel.
Mash the go-pedal, and the Tesla plants you in your seat and rushes forward with eerily little feedback, save for the faint whir of the motor behind you. The addicting experience is not unlike being flung out of a giant sling-shot.
The trouble is that repeated demonstrations of the car's prodigious power utterly destroy its range. Tesla says this model will go 300 miles on a single charge. The EPA puts that number at 265 miles. Over four days of testing the car, we managed only about 160 miles in heavy-footed driving.
All Model S's will charge through a 120V or 240V outlet. Tesla says the former needs roughly 46 hours to recharge fully, while the latter needs eight to 10 hours. Buyers can reduce these times by adding a second on-board charger for $1,500 and buying a high-power wall connector for $1,200.
Tesla is also installing 100 of what it calls supercharging stations in the U.S. and Canada by year's end, including six already operating in California. They're free for Tesla owners, who can add half a charge in about half an hour.
There will be a lot more of those owners soon, the company says. Tesla has more than 13,000 fully refundable deposits and expects to deliver 20,000 of the cars this year. The only other morsel of intel on the company's finances came from Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk, of PayPal fame, who cryptically tweeted in early December that the company was "narrowly cash-flow positive last week."
Established automakers should be paying attention, but they shouldn't be surprised. In a blog post dated August 2006, Musk laid out his three-step vision for Tesla. Step 1: Build a sports car. Then use that money to build an affordable car. Then, finally, use that money to build an even more affordable car.
Steps 1 and 2 are done, with mixed results. The Model S is hardly affordable, nor does it guarantee safe passage to Step 3. But strip away the financial drama, and all that's left is the best electric car ever made.