Thursday, October 4, 2012

One Big Step for Tesla, One Giant Leap for E.V.’s

AUTOMAKERS have a favored buzzword for promoting important new models: game-changer.

Excuse me, but the game is not so easily changed.

Put simply, the automobile has not undergone a fundamental change in design or use since Henry Ford rolled out the Model T more than a century ago. At least that’s what I thought until I spent a week with the Tesla Model S.

The 2012 Model S, a versatile sedan that succeeds the company’s two-seat Roadster, is simultaneously stylish, efficient, roomy, crazy fast, high-tech and all electric. It defies the notion that electric cars are range-limited conveyances.

While driving a Model S with the biggest available battery pack — 85 kilowatt-hours — on a restrained run through Northern California wine country, I was able to wring 300.1 miles from a single charge. The E.P.A.’s rating for equivalent gasoline miles per gallon is 88 m.p.g.e. in town and 90 on the highway, with a 265-mile range.

On a more enthusiastic romp from my home base here to Santa Cruz and back, I sampled what the 362-horsepower electric drivetrain was designed to do: bolt. Tesla says the car can zip from zero to 60 in 5.6 seconds and tops out at 125 miles per hour, but it was the silent, near-instantaneous bursts from 35 to 65 along the Pacific on California Highway 1 that best demonstrated the S’s otherworldly quality.

I managed to make that 207-mile round-trip with about 25 miles of battery charge remaining when I pulled into my driveway. I never gave a second’s thought to range, batteries or kilowatt-hours. I just hauled amps. It’s probably best for my driving record that I didn’t test the performance version of the Model S, which raises the ante to 416 horsepower — and a 4.4-second dash from zero to 60 m.p.h.

The Model S, which went on sale in June, is built in a Tesla plant in Fremont, Calif., where a Toyota-General Motors joint venture once made cars.

The Model S’s sleek exterior suggests Maserati, Jaguar — or, especially in the shape of its grille, Aston Martin. “If people make that aspirational brand reference, I’m psyched,” said Franz Von Holzhausen, Tesla’s chief of design.

Perhaps the design team’s greatest accomplishment is lending James Bond styling to a five-passenger sedan that Tesla says has the lowest aerodynamic drag of any production vehicle — an impressive drag coefficient of 0.24. The seductive shape of the Model S beats even the appliancelike Toyota Prius.

Yet the S also has a practical side: an optional rear jump seat for two children increases the total capacity to seven. I loaded 30 folding chairs for a school event without needing to flip down the second-row seat. With no engine, the Model S has a sizable second trunk in front, which Tesla calls a frunk. More


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