December 9, 2012

News & Features

Could long-range Tesla Model S change the way we view e-cars?

Special to NWautos

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The Tesla Model S has three battery-pack sizes, with the largest getting 265 miles to a charge. (Tesla)

Strapped into the passenger seat of a Tesla Model S — the company's new all-electric, five-passenger, American-built sedan — I should have been ready for Scott Ferguson's little surprise.

Just as I was noticing how plush the ride was on a typically bumpy Seattle street, Ferguson, one of the area's early Model S owners, decided to goose it. Instantly, the rear tires chirped and at least three cervical vertebrae self-adjusted as my neck slammed back into the seat. No need for the chiropractor this week.

"I guess you can peel out with this car," Ferguson, of Bellevue, said unapologetically. But then, as he took his foot off the accelerator, something remarkable happened. A gauge on the dash showed that the 416-horsepower motor was pushing electricity back into the batteries. The car was reclaiming some of the juice Ferguson had "wasted."

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Scott Ferguson and his wife, Mary, got their Model S in October. (Scott McCredie / Special to NWautos)

The Model S's astounding acceleration, velvety ride and efficient energy management are just a few of its jaw-dropping features. Hailed as a game-changing vehicle that erases the drawbacks of previous electric cars, the Model S has been highly anticipated by electric car buffs, environmentalists and techno-geeks.

In the past two months, a few dozen of the vehicles have been delivered to Seattle-area owners. What are their impressions? Does the reality come anywhere close to the hype?

Eric and Karen Brechner, who live in Woodinville, took delivery of their Model S in September. "I wanted an electric car with enough room to drive my sons around and haul a couple of dogs," says Karen, a proofreader and editor.

With seating for five adults, the interior of the Model S feels cavernous, including 31.6 cubic feet of storage space in the trunk and "frunk," Tesla's name for the storage area under the hood.

"I didn't expect it to be so much fun," Karen Brechner says. Her husband, who works for Microsoft, says that before they bought the S, "whenever we used to go out, Karen had me drive. Now she always drives."

They've taken one long road trip so far, to Lake Chelan. Starting with a full battery, they finished the 180-mile trip with 100 miles left in reserve. The Model S has the longest range of any production electric vehicle, with an EPA rating of 265 miles using the largest battery pack.

Next year, the car will be available with two smaller battery packs, reducing the range (to 160 and 230 miles), but also lowering the price from $92,400 to a more palatable $57,400 (for the smallest battery pack, before federal tax credits).

The location of the battery pack, a rectangular array of 7,000 water-cooled lithium-ion batteries that weighs half a ton, is underneath the passenger compartment, lowering the car's center of gravity. "It doesn't lurch at all in corners or when you slam on the brakes," Eric Brechner says. "It feels like it's glued to the road."

In the center of the dashboard sits a bright 17-inch touch screen that controls most of the car's functions. "It's like having an iPhone on wheels," says Ferguson, a retired Microsoft programmer. He says it was the sophisticated "avionics" that sold him on the vehicle.

Most Model S owners seem eager to proselytize. "All you have to do to become an evangelist is drive one for a while," says Chad Schwitters, a retired mobile software developer, who received his Model S in October.

Is it a "game changer" in the auto industry — the Ford Model T of the 21st century? That will hinge on whether enough people buy the car to give electric vehicles a critical mass, and the expansion of charging stations.

"The Model S is a lot nicer than a Model T," deadpans Eric Brechner. "Anyone who takes the time to drive a Model S, they can't help but have the same experience my friends have had. It has completely changed their point of view. They say, 'This is an electric car? This is the nicest car I've ever been in.' "

"It's a big, roomy car we can take to Costco," adds Schwitters. "And it still uses half the energy of a Prius."

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