Tech Check

Get Ready for Tesla!


So much has been written about Tesla that the company and its sporty electric car are virtually household names, even though only a handful have been delivered to clients.

But that's the news here: that Tesla is indeed beginning to meet some of the incredible customer demand that most car companies -- any company -- would kill for.

Some brief background so we're on the same page: the Tesla is the world's first, ultra-high-end, ultra-performance, electric sports car. The anti-Prius in virtually every way except for that one: it's electric.

And I don't mean golf-cart electric. I also mean "electric" in the sense that it ignites an excitement in you the moment you get behind the wheel and power up. I had the rare opportunity to do just that a couple of weeks ago and the experience was exhilarating.

"We want to have a sports car that you would buy even if it was not electric, and by the way IT IS electric," co-founder Elon Musk tells us.

It took some getting used to. I'm a small fella, and it still took me an extra moment or two to fold myself into the spartan cockpit. But once there, the car fit like a glove. Tight, secure, race-car like. Which joins the Tesla's sweet chassis design as key clues that this is anything but a slow-to-respond electric vehicle.

"Well let me tell you, this is going to blow those stereotypes out of the water. I mean this car will leave a Ferrari in its dust," says Musk.

No engine to fire up, so acceleration is super-fast, and unnervingly quiet. Zero to 60 is under four seconds. I tried it, and the claim is true. But without the revving sound of a conventional engine to give you a cue that you're really going that fast, you find your gaze fixed on the speedometer to make sure you understand what's really going on. I suspect that inclination goes away as you get used to the car. About 7,000 battery cells create 250 horsepower, and the car goes 225 miles on a four hour charge. Steering is amazingly responsive. Braking is powerful.

The car ain't cheap either. It runs $109,000. And while the car's acceleration is instant, delivery is anything but. There are more than 1,000 names on the list, each of whom plunked down $60,000 for the privilege!

And here's the kicker: Tesla's only able to build five or six of these a week right now, hoping to increase production to 30 or so a week by next year. That means customers could wait a year or longer for delivery.


Meantime, Tesla continues to tempt its potential clientele with the grand-opening of its first dealership in Santa Monica, California. Rather convenient for the eco- and status-conscious Hollywood crowd: George Clooney, Jenny McCarthy, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Quincy Jones. They're all on the wait-list.

Still, the company continues to be dogged by questions about the wait-list, whether the car is worth it, whether its properly financed to meet demand, whether it can truly turn a profit -- which becomes important since co-founder Elon Musk anticipates an initial public offering before year-end.

The start up has raised over $105 million over 4 rounds of funding, from Musk himself, who made his fortune from PayPal, Capricorn Investment Corp. and Google's Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

Tesla isn't just about the roadster, either. The company is developing the WhiteStar, a 4-door, five passenger sports sedan planned for introduction for the 2010 model year. For this vehicle, Tesla has started construction on a new assembly plant in New Mexico.

A third Tesla car on the table will be priced under $30,000 and built in volumes of 100,000 units a year, the company claims. This will carry likely development costs of $400 million.

A tall order to be sure, and Tesla's got to convince the world that it isn't going to become just an electric version of the Tucker. After taking a spin in this sweet little ride I certainly hope not.

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