As I situate myself in the driver's seat of Tesla's Model S show car -- a working model of the future-chic, fast-backed electric sedan upon which the Silicon Valley automaker now depends -- I think of all the electric-car peaceniks who would gladly throttle me to take my place as the first person outside the company to drive the car. It's a pleasant thought.
Yet their envy would be misplaced. This lovely, porpoise-sleek design study, unveiled to worldwide hoopla March 26, is just barely ambulatory -- more like a glorified golf cart than a harbinger of tomorrow tech. The windows are fixed in their frames. The power-steering motor groans. The seating position and outward visibility make a Lamborghini feel spacious. The car's signature design flourish -- a 17-inch, touch-screen control panel with haptic feedback in the center console -- may not even make it to production, concedes Tesla designer Franz von Holzhausen. "The car is only about 90% there on the outside and about 40% there on the inside."
Still, the gimpy, far-from-real fiberglass prototype is pivotal for the company. It was, Holzhausen says, a "huge morale boost" for employees last fall, after the company suffered a round of layoffs and closed its Michigan office. More crucially, the Model S took center stage in early April when Tesla officials traveled to Washington to appeal for $450 million in government loans.
Tesla could go on even without the government loans, Von Holzhausen says, "but it would go on a lot slower."
A "clean screen" design, the Model S would be built in Tesla's own assembly hall (in an undetermined facility in Southern California). It would offer a choice of three progressively costly battery packs with ranges of about 165 miles, 230 miles and 300 miles; it would accelerate from zero to 60 mph in 5.6 seconds and would have a top speed of 125 mph; the base price of the car would be $57,400 ($49,900 if you count the federal tax credit on all-electric cars); it would offer seven-passenger seating (which seems impossible, given the size and layout of the prototype and the increasingly stringent federal rear-crash standards) and optional all-wheel drive; it would provide for quick replacement of its floor-mounted battery pack, a daunting technical challenge that would require that the pack be a load-bearing part of the structure. Tesla expects to build 20,000 vehicles in the first full year of production.