Living in Silicon Valley, we can be blasé about nearby companies that are, without hyperbole, revolutionizing the way we navigate and understand our world.
A few weeks ago we visited the headquarters of such a company, located in an unassuming complex of beige buildings just off Arastradero Road in Palo Alto.
The company is Tesla Motors Inc., only 10 years old when it received prestigious Motor Trend magazine’s “Car of the Year 2013” and Automobile magazine’s “2013 Automobile of the Year” awards for its new Model S, as well as one of the highest ratings ever given to any model of automobile by Consumer Reports. When we finally got our chance to drive this car, we could easily see why these magazines tout it as the most advanced production automobile on the road today.
The most interesting aspect of our drive was how unrevolutionary we found the experience to be. Had we been blindfolded until we were in the car, and had the huge touch-controlled flat-screen information center in the center of the dashboard been covered, nothing about our experience would have told us we were not in one of the fine luxury sedans produced by Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Jaguar or Audi. We probably would have guessed this to be a Mercedes, because the steering wheel, column switchgear and window controls are actually manufactured by the German company.
Certainly the fit and finish of the interior materials, design and trim in this car are every bit on par with the established luxury-car manufacturers. Once underway, things got even better, as we bit deeply into the 440 pound-feet of torque up the ascending switchbacks of Moody and Page Mill roads. Sailing through the sweeping turns of Skyline Boulevard, then dropping back down into the valley on the tight curves of Portola Road, we found the car to be as confident and sure-footed at speed as any European grand touring car.
A nontraditional luxury car
Chatting with the Tesla specialist who was riding with us, however, we learned that underneath the sleek skin of this attractive car, there is very little in common with those traditional luxury sport sedans.
A careful observer would note that that there isn’t any grille on the front that would admit cooling air to the radiator of an internal combustion engine, because there is no engine up front. Where the engine normally would be mounted, there’s room for a golf bag or several pieces of luggage.
Instead, the car is powered by an electric motor in the rear, with batteries mounted in the place normally occupied by the transmission. Lift the rear hatch – a practical touch that few other luxury manufacturers deign to design into their high-end models – and there is yet more luggage space, large enough that two children could be strapped into the optional rear-facing seats that would allow them to make faces at drivers of more prosaic conveyances following them.
That estimable torque comes from the fact that an electric motor offers instant-on power. The car’s structure, with weight concentrated low and centered in the body, enhances the handling. With active suspension like some ultra-expensive supercars, the Model S even lowers itself at speed by up to 3 inches to reduce air resistance. Likewise, if the driveway looks steep, the car can be raised 3 inches so that the smooth lower front panel won’t scrape on the concrete.
Getting a charge out of driving
But let’s be practical here. This is, after all, an electric vehicle. Aren’t those newfangled automobiles fraught with compromises and limitations? Well, no. Purchase the base model for approximately $75,000 before the various tax credits cut as much as $10,000 off that number, and you can drive 200 miles between charges, which is pretty much the distance most people drive in a week. Opt for the performance model at approximately $100,000 – about the same price as an equivalently loaded Mercedes or BMW – and your range increases to 250 miles. Few people are ever likely to probe those limits in between stints near a battery charger on anything but a long-distance road trip.
Most owners, of course, will use the car primarily for driving to the office, running errands during the day and returning home for the evening. For this kind of use, they could install a 240-volt high-power wall connector in their home garage, perhaps plug in to a charger in the corporate or downtown parking lot, which would charge the car completely in less than four hours. In a pinch – spending the weekend in Mendocino, for example – the car can be completely recharged from a standard 110-volt outlet in six to eight hours.
If you are thinking about cruising south to Los Angeles, Tesla has you covered there as well. With its network of “Supercharger” stations along Highway 101 and Interstate 5, all you need to do is make two 20-minute stops along the way for coffee and a sandwich while you recharge the batteries. Similar stations are being built along major interstate routes so that within a few years, should you wish to do so, you’ll be able to go coast-to-coast without worrying about running out of power.
But if you aren’t quite at the point where you’re ready to invest in an expensive luxury sedan, Tesla will still have something for you in just less than two years. In the pipeline is the “Model X,” a practical crossover SUV at a lower price point but built on the same basic platform as the Model S.
But is all of this still bleeding-edge technology, suitable only for early adopters willing to take a risk to have the next big thing? Not really. Tesla’s plan is to deliver more than 20,000 units to customers by the end of this year, and longer-range plans call for doubling the rate every year for the next four years. Production at the Fremont plant is flowing smoothly and customers now are waiting only two months for deliveries, similar to the waiting period for any other production car.
Yes, we do have much to be proud of here in the heart of Silicon Valley. It is exciting to learn that we even have an innovative automobile company only a stone’s throw from our village.
Tesla has done what no established automobile company could manage – develop a state-of-the-art electric-powered luxury sedan – and put it into production just across the Bay at a quality and price competitive with any automobile in the world.
Longtime Los Altos residents Gary and Genie Anderson are co-owners of Enthusiast Publications LLC, which edits several car club magazines and contributes articles and columns to automotive magazines and online services.