You’ve probably heard of Tesla Motors by now, the California company that designs and manufactures electric cars. Founded in 2003, Tesla almost didn’t make it through the recession, but today its fortunes are rising, thanks in large part to the car it released last year: the Model S (top photo). A premium sport sedan, the Model S is aimed at people who would otherwise buy a Mercedes S Class or a Lexus. It starts at $69,900 ($62,400 with a $7,500 federal tax credit). You recharge the car by plugging it into a wall outlet or a public charging station. The charging port is built into the taillight. Automotive journalists have gone nuts for the Model S; Motor Trend and Automobile named it their car of the year for 2013, and Consumer Reports gave it a rare 99 out of 100 rating.
Tesla just opened its first dealership in Pennsylvania, in the King of Prussia Mall, next to the Apple Store and not far from the Neiman Marcus. The store is Tesla’s 24th in the country and 35th in the world. I went to check it out last Thursday, the day before it officially opened to the public. The store’s metal gate was down when I arrived—several passing mallgoers had stopped to peer inside, hooking their fingers through the gate—but a Tesla communications manager, Alexis Georgeson, let me in.
It didn’t feel much like a typical auto showroom. The cars were there, of course—two Model Ses, one red and one white, sleek and expensive-looking—but there were also oversized touchscreens that offered facts about electric-vehicle technology. Shelves and walls were lined with Tesla-branded t-shirts, hats, water bottles, lunch boxes, and even baby onesies (“it’s electric, baby”). The store seemed to encourage lingering. Georgeson explained that the idea here isn’t just to sell cars; it’s to educate, to get potential customers thinking in terms of kilowatt-hours and battery packs instead of cylinders and gasoline. “The mission of this company is to accelerate the advent of the electric vehicle,” she said.
Georgeson led me over to a bare chassis in the middle of the store. The Model S chassis, designed from scratch, is made of aluminum, to save weight. She showed me where the car’s battery pack goes, under the floor, which gives the Model S a low center of gravity to help with handling. Then she pointed out the electric motor and the inverter, which switches one type of electrical current to another. Both components sit between the rear wheels. The motor, she explained, is the size of a watermelon—a friendly, unthreatening fruit. Because the car’s powertrain is in the back, she said, the crumple zone in the front of the car is huge, making it very safe.
She approached the white Model S. There were no visible door handles on the car, just outlines where the handles would be. Suddenly there was a mechanical whirr, and the handles poked out. The retractable handles improve the car’s aerodynamic efficiency; Tesla claims that the Model S’s coefficient of drag is .24, lower than even the Toyota Prius. (Lower is better.) I sat in the driver’s seat, facing a 17-inch touchscreen, by far the biggest I’d ever seen in a car: temperature controls, regular and Internet radio, 10 customizable driver profiles, Google Maps for navigation, the works. On the digital dash, a graph showed the car’s recent energy usage.
The EPA says the range of the Model S is an impressive 265 miles per charge. Range is a crucial figure when it comes to electric cars, because you obviously can’t recharge your batteries at any old gas station. Tesla has built eight “Superchargers,” speedy charging stations for Tesla customers, but so far there are only two Superchargers on the East Coast, and none in the Philly area. Georgeson said the company would be building more Superchargers soon. She added that with all the information the Model S gives you about the state of its charge, it’s easy to know when you’re running low: “This car is going to more accurately calibrate your range than any internal combustion engine.”
One of the knocks on Tesla has always been that they’re making toys for rich people, not practical cars for regular folk; Tesla’s first vehicle, the Roadster, a two-seat sports car, cost north of $100,000. I asked Georgeson how long it would be before a person like me could afford a Tesla. She said they were working on it. First will come the Model X, an electric SUV based on the Model S platform, in 2014. The next model after that will likely be more affordable, starting around $30,000. After hanging out in the dealership, I’m anxious for that day to come.