• BY AARON ROBINSON

    Driving the new Tesla Model S out of its factory in Fremont, California, you pass the empty glass and steel husk of neighboring Solyndra Corp., another Silicon Valley technology venture that was propelled by optimism and bountiful government loans. Solyndra made solar panels, but it broke apart on the rocks of business reality, and its politicized bankruptcy has been a daunting daily reminder to Tesla’s 1700 employees of the consequences of  failure.

    However, there are reasons for at least temporary optimism for Tesla. We only got 10 minutes in the car so we couldn’t test its range, but here’s what we can report: Our few miles in the Model S revealed a vehicle that would meet a BMW owner’s definition of a sports sedan.

    The 362-hp Signature model we drove, priced at $96,570 before a $7500 federal tax rebate, strained its leash with its prodigious electric muscles and flat-tracked through 80-mph sweepers directed by fast steering with piano-wire tension to the wheels. It pounced from an on-ramp like the jaguar on the hood of the Jaguars it resembles, hitting 100 mph with a whisper of electromotive acceleration. Tesla says the hottest model, the Signature Performance ($106,570), which has the largest available battery and produces the most torque, will hit 60 mph in the mid-fours. At this point, we don’t doubt it.

    The windows are leak-free, the doors don’t squeak, and the seats feel comfortable, though rear headroom is pinched. The various menus of the giant, glowing, iPad-like central display are easy to learn and access while driving, and the combination of a long wheelbase, stiff structure, and compliant tune of the air-spring suspension makes for a gentle, cosseting ride. Besides that, the Model S looks like Beyoncé draped over a chaise lounge.

    The first customer deliveries were in June, but, in reality, most early buyers won’t receive their cars until much later this year or into next. The sprawling industrial campus that was once a GM/Toyota joint-venture plant spewing out 6000 vehicles per week is currently assembling just one Model S a day in an unusual, vertically integrated process that has the Tesla workers stamping their own sheetmetal, injection-molding their own bumper covers, winding their own motors, and upholstering their own seats.

    The company plans to ramp up to 80 cars daily by the end of the year, but since our last visit in October 2011, the crisply refurbished production hall with its army of idle red-painted robots maintains the quiet grand ambience of Westminster Abbey several days before a royal wedding.

    Eventually, after the first 1000 cars are built as loaded-up Signature models, ordering a Model S will involve choosing from two motor-power levels, three battery packs, two onboard chargers, two trim packages, and several stand-alone options.

    Specifications >

    VEHICLE TYPE: rear-motor, rear-wheel-drive, 7-passenger, 5-door hatchback

    BASE PRICE: $58,570–$106,570

    MOTOR TYPE: AC permanent-magnet synchronous electric motor, 362 or 416 hp, 325 or 443 lb-ft

    TRANSMISSION: 1-speed direct drive

    DIMENSIONS:
    Wheelbase: 116.5 in
    Length: 196.0 in
    Width: 77.3 in Height: 56.5 in
    Curb weight: 4650 lb

    PERFORMANCE (C/D EST):
    Zero to 60 mph: 4.4–6.5 sec
    ¼-mile: 12.6–13.7 sec
    Top speed: 110–130 mph
    Braking, 70–0 mph: 147 ft

    FUEL ECONOMY:
    EPA city/highway driving: 88/90 MPGe

    Continued…

  • BY AARON ROBINSON

    The base Model S uses a liquid-cooled AC motor producing 362 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque, while the Perform­ance models have a 16,000-rpm motor juiced with additional windings to produce 416 horses and 443 pound-feet. Performance models also will have 21-inch wheels and summer tires instead of 19s and all-seasons.

    Initially, only the top 85-kWh lithium-ion battery pack will be supplied for an advertised range of  300 miles, but lighter, less-expensive 40-kWh and 60-kWh packs will come later, offering claimed ranges of up to 160 miles and 240 miles, respectively. The Model S comes standard with an onboard 10-kW charger, while a 20-kW unit can be purchased initially or retrofitted for $1500. It will cut recharge time on the mega 85-kWh pack from eight hours to about four, depending on the amp and voltage ratings of the garage circuit.

    The Model S concentrates much of its 4650-pound curb weight in the 7000-cell battery pack installed under the floor, so it doesn’t feel the pull of lateral g’s like conventional cars with higher centers of gravity. Thus, Tesla is able to get away with a relatively soft suspension while still keeping pitch and roll in check. The driver can choose from three distinct steering-boost levels, and the air-spring suspension offers four ride heights. The monolithic, half-ton battery case underfoot gives passengers the sense of sitting atop a granite slab. Road bumps are heard but barely felt through the dense structure. The Tesla is a double-bacon porker, but what it does with the pounds makes it magical. Somewhere, Colin Chapman is nodding.

    By producing the aluminum-bodied Model S, Tesla has taken on challenges far exceeding those of building the roadster it has been selling since 2008. With five doors, the option of seven seats, an all-glass dashboard of multicolor display screens, and a battery pack that is promising up to 300 miles of driving, the Model S is co-founder Elon Musk’s moonshot.

    Though it may seem expensive, the more-made-in-America-than-most-“American”-cars Model S can’t possibly turn a profit at its price, given all that is clean-sheet new and novel about it—at least, not until Tesla has closed out a few Decembers at or near its 20,000-per-year sales goal, which, given the cruel history of the auto industry, may be never.

    Various investors, from Toyota to ­Daimler (which supplies a Benz steering ­column to the Model S) to Uncle Sam—with its $465 million in loans—to Tesla’s shareholders on Wall Street, have all bet money and material that Tesla won’t flame out like Solyndra. Without them, there would be no Model S. And unless the car succeeds, there may be no more investors.

    Specifications >

    VEHICLE TYPE: rear-motor, rear-wheel-drive, 7-passenger, 5-door hatchback

    BASE PRICE: $58,570–$106,570

    MOTOR TYPE: AC permanent-magnet synchronous electric motor, 362 or 416 hp, 325 or 443 lb-ft

    TRANSMISSION: 1-speed direct drive

    DIMENSIONS:
    Wheelbase: 116.5 in
    Length: 196.0 in
    Width: 77.3 in Height: 56.5 in
    Curb weight: 4650 lb

    PERFORMANCE (C/D EST):
    Zero to 60 mph: 4.4–6.5 sec
    ¼-mile: 12.6–13.7 sec
    Top speed: 110–130 mph
    Braking, 70–0 mph: 147 ft

    FUEL ECONOMY:
    EPA city/highway driving: 88/90 MPGe

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    By AARON ROBINSON