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FIRST DRIVE: Tesla S Sedan Fulfills Its Battery-Powered Promise, and More

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Nikola Tesla would have been impressed. Tesla, a Serbian-American inventor, is credited with discovering alternating current (AC)—the electricity that runs through our power grids.

Now, 69 years after his death, Tesla’s name has been revived for a car make. For several years, Tesla Motors has been in the news for developing a battery-powered Roadster that promised phenomenal performance as well as thrifty all-electric operation. In 2012, the emphasis has shifted to the Tesla S premium sedan, which has been publicized for some time and is finally in production.

Not often does a vehicle come along that qualifies as excellent or better on all counts. That’s especially unlikely when the vehicle isn’t even fully on sale yet, apart from a handful of early buyers. As of early summer 2012, 10 Tesla S sedans were in the hands of customers, though many more had plunked down deposits.

Even more surprising, the vehicle in question is a pure electric model—a powertrain that isn’t getting a lot of respect these days, except from hardened electric-car fans and early adopters.

Range is invariably the Number One question about electric cars, and Tesla has three answers. The Tesla S may be ordered with any of three battery capacities: 40, 60, or 85 kilowatt-hours. Starting at $57,400, the 40-kWh version promises a range near 160 miles. Another $10,000 buys the 60-kWh model, with a 230-mile range. For $77,400, the 85-kWh edition claims a range of about 300 miles (at 55 mph).

Performance varies, too, with 0-60 mph acceleration time as low as 5.6 seconds. Not enough? Acceleration advocates can shell out additional dollars for a Performance Package, which slices 0-60 time to a blazing 4.4 seconds. This ultimate Tesla S model also nets 89 MPGe (miles per gallon equivalent).

Acceleration in a Performance Package stretches beyond astounding. This Tesla S shot forward with supreme smoothness and effortless action, seemingly eager to go on indefinitely. No, such performance is seldom necessary in ordinary driving. But most emphatically, no Tesla driver will ever have to worry about being short on response when it’s time to pass another vehicle, or enter a crowded expressway.

Better yet, the Tesla S grabs the pavement tenaciously and handles with confidence. Body lean is almost nonexistent through quick curves. As the Store Manager noted, the “passenger leans more than the car does.” Ride comfort matches just about anything in the luxury class.

Controls differ from any car on the market. Rather than buttons or switches, nearly everything takes place on a vertically oriented, 17-inch touchscreen display mounted at the center. A Tesla S is packed solid with technology and driver choices, but everything on-screen is clearly identified. Still, almost nothing can be adjusted while driving without taking your eyes off the road for a moment or two.

A Tesla S definitely looks the part of a luxury sedan, ready to rival four-doors from BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Jaguar. Door handles retract into the body; moving out at a touch. Then, you pull lightly and the door opens. It’s one of many impressive extra features, such as having cargo space at the front of the car as well as below the rear hatch. Wearing an aluminum body for lightness, with an air suspension for ride quality, the rear-wheel-drive Tesla S has a battery pack, inverter, electric motor, and gearbox at the rear.

Anyone interested in a Tesla will have trouble finding a dealership. Instead of the conventional sales lot, Tesla is marketing its sedan at storefronts, typically in malls. Currently, there are 14 such “stores” in North American (24 worldwide), with another dozen expected later this year. No one is expected to buy a Tesla right off the showroom floor. The stores exist to drum up interest, with both a complete car and a Tesla chassis on display, along with wall-mounted interactive screens that give the full story.

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By James M. Flammang

Is Greater Range Around The Corner For Electric Cars?

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Ordinarily, we don’t accept electric cars for test-drives on our home ground. For good reason, too: Living in an apartment, we have no way to charge a battery-powered vehicle. Neither is there any provision for charging at my office. As a result, only at Preview Drives for new models, and during special media events, have I been able to experience the growing crop of electrics.

Therefore, when offered an opportunity to drive a fully-charged Mitsubishi I (formerly named i-MiEV), delivered in that condition by truck, we immediately said “yes.” Even better, we learned that there’s now a public charging station at a Walgreens drugstore, barely more than a block from home. Even though I’d driven the “I” for several hours at a media program a year earlier, this would be a most helpful trial of real-world electric-car use.

Mitsubishi’s electric car, certified by the Environmental Protection Agency, promises an estimated range of 62 miles – not all that much, but sufficient to get most drivers to work and back without concern. That’s the theme used in electric-car advertising, pointing out that most commuters can easily make a round trip without recharging.

Yet, after starting off with a fully-charged battery pack and driving just 22 miles through light suburban traffic, the indicator showed that only half of the battery’s capacity remained. Had we continued onward, then, we may well have run out of electricity after only about 45 miles – far short of the published range.

Sorry, that just won’t do. Even a confirmed electric-car advocate, such as myself, began to worry as that indicator dropped to the halfway mark, threatening to keep sinking fast. Furthermore, after connecting the Mitsubishi to that 220-volt charger at Walgreens, I ambled across the street for a leisurely coffee. Returning after about 1.3 hours, the charge indicator had risen from the halfway mark to less than three-quarters. Even at 220 volts, it’s a slow process.

Most EVs claim driving ranges well below a hundred miles; and that’s only if driven under light-load conditions. Of the subcompact electrics now on the market, Mitsubishi has the shortest range estimate, but the competitors aren’t much better. The NissanLeaf gets an estimate of 73 miles (Ed. Note: but should improve drastically, soon). The FordFocus Electric promises 76 miles. The new Honda Fit EV manages an 82-mpg estimate.

Heading that small-electric pack is the less-known CODA, with a claimed potential range of up to 125 miles. At the recent Plug-In 2012 Conference, experts determined that a range of at least 120 miles is needed to eliminate “range anxiety” for most people.

The far bigger, costly Tesla S, somewhat surprisingly named Car of the Year by Motor Trend magazine, is the only electric passenger car on the market with a range that reaches well into triple digits. Specifically, Tesla claims a range near 300 miles (at a steady 55 miles per hour) for its top-end model, priced at $77,400. Two less-pricey Tesla S sedans, with reduced battery capacity, have claimed ranges of 160 and 230 miles.

Electric cars have been around for more than a century, but all along, range has been the big trouble spot. In order to boost electrics into serious contenders, a big breakthrough has been needed. So far, it hasn’t emerged. Instead, electric-car batteries have been tapping at the window of potential range, when they should have been shattering that barrier and roaring forward.

At least one prominent antique-car collector has suggested that big, early electrics – such as the Baker – could go nearly as far as today’s lightweights.

Digital Trends reports that Toyota is developing a sodium battery with a potential range up to 600 miles. Sounds exciting, but claims of vast battery improvements have been made over and over. In reality, most have resulted in far more modest increases, if they came into existence at all. So, it would be prudent not to get too worked up about Toyota’s research until a lot more data has been acquired.

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By James M. Flammang

RAV4 EV: Toyota and Tesla Partner To Make User-Friendly Electric

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The Toyota RAV4 EV – a joint partnership between Toyota and Tesla – will be available for eco-minded customers in California this summer, fully loaded with up to 100 miles of electric range and a starting price of $49,800.

The project aimed to provide a more user-friendly experience for EV owners, and also further the relationship between Toyota and Tesla. In less than two years, Tesla produced specialized battery and electric powertrain to fit the existing RAV4, and Toyota says the RAV4 EV will equal or best its gas-powered brother in nearly all performance tests. In Sport mode, Toyota expects it to reach 0-60mph in 7.0 seconds.

The RAV4 EV can charge in Standard or Extended mode, the former yielding 92 miles of range and the latter providing more than 113. Leviton offers a standard 120V charging cable or an optional 240V for a six-hour charge. Toyota and Tesla developed ECO LO and ECO HI driving modes, pre-cooling and pre-heating systems under charging and a unique regenerative braking technique to make the RAV4 EV easier to own than other electric vehicles.

What’s certainly not user-friendly is that price. Nearly $50 grand is quite steep for a small SUV that carries a Toyota badge instead of Lexus. Federal and state rebates could combine for up to $10,000 in savings, but the cost is enough to keep out everyone but the hardcore EV enthusiasts. Toyota expects to sell about 2,600 models through 2014.

Then again, sales of the RAV4 EV aren’t really what the project is about. It’s about developing and innovating electric technology, in order to bring it to market and eventually make it mass-produced and more affordable. In that respect, partnering with Tesla is proving to be the best move Toyota could have made; the two can share technology costs and existing vehicle platforms to keep costs down.

So don’t think of the RAV4 EV as a $50,000 electric SUV. Think of it as the father of a future generation of affordable technology.

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Toyota RAV4 EV – Official Website

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By Ryan ZumMallen

Tesla Unveils New Leasing Program For Model S

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In an attempt to diversify purchasing options for potential customers, Tesla Motors yesterday unveiled a new 36-month leasing program for the popular Model S electric sedan that partners with banks and includes several key promises in the hopes of easing public fears about the cost of ownership.

So, how much? For the 60kWh Model S, only about $500 per month. Oh, excuse me. That’s if you factor in down payments, federal incentives, a guaranteed resale value, business write-offs, and gas savings. If that sounds like a lot of qualifiers, it is. The true out-of-pocket monthly payment is over $1,000 per month ($1,097 when I input figures that would relate to my hypothetical purchase — try it yourself here). Tesla shouldn’t be faulted for offering an alternative ownership method, but they do deserve scrutiny for skewing the numbers a bit. Then again, maybe this does turn out to be quite the deal. Does it make you more interested in buying a Model S?

After all, the Tesla Model S is not an affordable car. Nor should it be. The five seater is bloody gorgeous, blasts from 0-60 mph in about five seconds and has an all-electric range of more than 230 miles (up to 300 miles in some trims). It isn’t the car of the future, but it will probably lead to the car of the future, and that shouldn’t come cheap.

The problem is that Tesla wants to build the everyman electric car, but you can’t do that by making an expensive car appear affordable. They’ve already killed plans for the cheaper 40 kWh Model S, citing low interest, so why not just embrace that the Model S is an expensive car for people with the means?

Instead, Tesla is trying to put a price on things like gas savings and time savings and factor them into your monthly payment. Those benefits of owning a Tesla Model S are all well and good, but if I’m on the fence about buying one, they aren’t going to open my eyes and lead me down a new path. I already know about the benefits of a Model S or I wouldn’t be considering one in the first place. The Model S is a great choice for people who can afford one, but asking them to consider hypothetical pennies saved doesn’t seem like a great marketing strategy.

Which is a shame, because the lease offer is attractive. US Bank and Wells Fargo put up 10% for a down payment, which depending on your state is likely covered by tax credits anyway, and after the 36-month term your Model S will have the guaranteed resale value of a Mercedes-Benz S Class.

It’s not a bad deal. It’s just not the deal Tesla wants you to think it is.

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By Ryan ZumMallen

Tesla Model X Production Delayed Until 2014

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Hold onto your Amex Centurion cards, Tesla freaks. Tesla Motors confirms it will push back production of its upcoming Model X until the end of 2014. The news went out a little earlier than Tesla had planned, when the Los Angeles Times leaked Tesla’s 10-K form.

In a statement released by Tesla, the high-end electric vehicle company decided to hold back on the Model X to focus on its wildly popular Model S. Click through to read the official statement.

“Tesla has been intensely focused on Model S, its production and product enhancements and believe there is increased volume potential for Model S. As a result, Tesla has decided to slightly push back the development and timing of Model X to 2014. We do not expect a material impact on our profitability in 2013 or 2014.”

The third model in the successful Tesla lineup, the Model X is the heftier crossover with the face of its sportier sister, the Model S. The Model X was first unveiled at Tesla Studios in February 2012, causing hundreds of Tesla devotees for fork over $5,000 deposits.

The Model X features seating for seven, falcon-winged rear doors, a front and rear trunk, and two touchscreens on the steering wheel. The all-wheel drive version of the Model X also has two motors powering the front and rear.

The wait for this innovative, all-electric crossover will be a little longer, probably 2015 at the earliest. Hopefully, the wait will be worth it.

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By Jessica Matsumoto

Are Battery Buggies The Answer To Electric Vehicle Range Anxiety?

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Plenty of thought has gone into developing the current crop of electric vehicles, from the Tesla Model S to the Chevrolet Spark EV. Now, it’s time to concentrate more on the power infrastructure and on realistic needs of likely EV owners.

Because the driving range of nearly all EVs remains limited, they’re being consigned largely to commuter duty. That’s fine, but having a short-range EV then means owning an additional car for longer trips. For millions of cash-strapped families, buying and operating a single vehicle is tough enough. Budgets for the non-affluent simply won’t stretch that far.

Innovation is definitely needed, at least until true long-range EVs are developed and can be produced at affordable prices.

This year’s winner of the European Satellite Navigation Competition, the ebuggy mobility project, promises to be a “long-distance traffic solution for e-vehicles.” The competition was sponsored by the European Space Agency, European GNSS Agency, German Aerospace Centre, Nokia, and others.

The idea could hardly be simpler. An EV owner wishing to take a trip could start out with a full charge, but stop at one or more relay stations along the way. At the first one, the owner could hitch a battery trailer, fully charged, to the car and drive on. Trailers could be exchanged at regular intervals, dropping off the one with the depleted battery and then driving off towing one that’s fully charged.

When approaching one’s destination, the last ebuggy that was used may be dropped off at the final relay station. While at that destination, the EV can be driven using its own battery, charged in the customary way at local charging stations.

A satellite navigation system has been developed to manage such a trailer fleet of the future, monitoring and controlling movement of the battery trailers in “real time.”

Prototypes were constructed with the support of Germany’s Ministry of Economics and Technology and various partners, including Stuttgart University. At some point, ebuggy GmbH plans to develop the ebuggy battery trailer and relay-station network for series production. An international ebuggy network also is planned.

Practical? Perhaps. But a tiny bit tacky, too. Pulling a series of ebuggies would be rather like towing a little U-Haul trailer containing all your stuff.

Though feasible in Europe, this idea might not sell well in the U.S., with its longer distances between cities and points of interest. Yes, the network of public charging stations in the U.S. has been growing impressively, now thought to be topping 5,000 (Ed: The new Tesla Supercharging stations are particularly intriguing). But that leaves an awful lot of road miles across the country with no possible source for recharging.

Several trouble spots come to mind. If your EV has a range no greater than 75 miles or so, how do you arrange a trip if relay stations are, say, 50 miles apart? You’d have to stop at every single one and make an exchange. What if no ebuggies are available at a given station? You can’t just keep on driving. Such issues aren’t so crucial now, when only small numbers of EVs are in operation. But if and when that total grows appreciably, plenty of logistics questions pop into mind.

Still, ebuggy demonstrates the kind of thinking that just might make a difference, even if this particular proposal doesn’t really pan out on a widespread scale–or at all.

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By James M. Flammang

Pop The Hood: How The Tesla Model S Won Car of the Year

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This week, the Tesla Model S became the first car to ever be unanimously chosen as the Motor Trend Car of the Year. It’s sexy and smooth, but the best thing about the Model S is undoubtedly its remarkable electric powertrain. Let’s see what makes it tick.

In the top-of-the-line Signature Performance trim, the 2013 Tesla Model S packs 416 horsepower and 443 lb.-ft of torque, and can achieve 0-60 mph in just 4.4 seconds. How does a 4,650 lb. car do all this without any gasoline? The obvious answer is of course, sorcery.

But the truth may even be more amazing. The Model S uses a liquid-cooled, lithium-ion battery that includes 7,000 battery cells for 85 kilowatt-hours (kWh) powered by an AC electric motor mounted between the rear wheels. Truly incredible stuff, but what does that even mean?

Well, it all starts with the 3-phase, 4-pole electric motor. The same one, in fact, that Tesla used in their previous Roadster model. A 3-phase, 4-pole motor generates a rotating electrical field at approximately one-fourth the frequency of the AC power supply. This technology was actually discovered by the company’s namesake, innovator Nikola Tesla.

There is an important designation here, because there are plenty of DIY electric car conversions out there that use a DC motor. DC motors are cheaper, but an AC motor places greater emphasis on performance, is safer, more simple to install and more adaptable to moving at different speeds. If a DC motor blows, it’s very likely to leave your converted car in a pile of burned wires. If an AC motor fails, the engine simply fails. No flames. No wonder, then, that the 85 kWh version will run you between $84,900 and $97,900. That’s the price of technology these days, but it’s also the price of whisper-quiet, zero emissions supercar performance.

Back to those 7,000 batteries. Panasonic supplied the lithium-ion cells for the Model S, which uses them as a flat part of the platform (rather than literally piecing thousands of laptop batteries together, like the Roadster did) to increase stability and balance. The cells are also liquid-cooled, constantly monitored to cool or warm the batteries so that they’re always operating at peak performance (and not exploding).

The cells connect to cathodes (electronic conductors through which current flows out) made of nickel-cobalt-aluminum. The most powerful kind of cathods are cobalt dioxide, but these are expensive as all hell and tend to – you guessed it – blow up. A nickel-cobalt-managanese setup lowers the cost, and makes it possible to tune for greater range or performance. Tesla elected to replace the manganese with aluminum, making it even more affordable.

Those cathodes send power to the wheels, which move an extremely lightweight all-aluminum body and high-strength steel frame through the air at just a 0.24 drag coefficient – the lowest of any production car. Full electric power with that kind of weight savings and drag comes out to about 89 MPGe and a 265-mile range. Does that make the 2013 Tesla Model S the car of the year? We’ll leave that up to you, but no matter what you think, you have to admit its technology is truly something to admire.

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Thanks for readingPop The Hood, a weeklyautoMedia.comfeature that examines the industry’s latest innovations and what makes them tick. If you enjoyed this column, check out these past entries in our Pop The Hood archive.

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Trim Levels

  • Model S – 40 kWh ($49,900)
  • Model S – 60 kWh ($59,900)
  • Model S – 85 kWh ($69,900)
  • Model S Performance – 85 kWh ($84,900)
  • Model S Signature – 85 kWh ($87,900)
  • Model S Signature Performance – 85 kWh ($97,900)

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By Ryan ZumMallen