published Saturday, April 13th, 2013

Test Drive: 2013 Car of the Year arrives in Chattanooga

The Tesla electric car is made in California.
Staff photo by Mark Kennedy
The Tesla electric car is made in California. Staff photo by Mark Kennedy
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    The Tesla interior features a touchscreen display. Staff photo by Mark Kennedy
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FAST FACTS

Model: Tesla Model S

Exterior color: Blue Metallic

Interior color: Tan

Engine: Electric

Horsepower: 362

Fuel economy: 2.5 cents per mile (based on Tennessee electric rates)

Dealer: Tesla Motors (nearest service center, Atlanta)

Price (as tested): $90,000

The Tesla Model S has been called the most important car made in America today. Motor Trend magazine named it the 2013 Car of the Year, following on the bumper of the Chattanooga-made VW Passat in 2012.

Tesla, the California-based car company that benefited from a $465 million government stimulus loan several years ago, reportedly is turning a profit this quarter and is on track to pay back its loans early, according to news reports.

The company's stock also has bounced back after a New York Times automotive journalist last month questioned whether the company's range estimates for the zero-emissions, electric-motor S Model were overgenerous.

With prices still in the high five-figures and no dealerships nearby to offer tire kicks, Tesla Model S sightings around Chattanooga are exceedingly rare. (Local owners have had their cars shipped to their front doors.)

In fact, if you've laid eyes on one of four known Teslas in the Chattanooga area, you could have easily mistaken it for a sleek Jaguar XJ. (Hint: If the next Jaguar you see appears to have a Tennessee Titans-style "T" on its grille, it might be a Tesla S.)

That's what made it so jaw-dropping when I pulled into a parking lot in a medical complex off Gunbarrel Road earlier this week and saw two -- yes, two -- blue metallic Tesla S Models parked side-by-side.

One belongs to Mark Elam, a Chattanooga physician, and the other to Robin Brady, a local optometrist. Elam and Brady have bonded over their blue beauties. The day we met they were discussing floor mat options and sun-roof lubricant.

Early adopters like these two tend to be exuberant owners. Thus, when I asked them each what they like best about their Teslas they both answered (independently): "Everything."

Pin them down and it's the otherworldly torque that propels the car zero-to-60 in about five seconds that really gets their raves. And after driving Elam's Tesla, it indeed feels like the hand of God is in the small of your back flinging you forward.

STYLING AND COMFORT

The Tesla S is long, low-slung and surprisingly practical as a family sedan. I spent a few minutes in the back seat, where there's plenty of room for kids or adults. Storage is also a plus, as the Tesla S not only has an ample rear cargo area under its hatch but also a second storage area under the hood that the local owners have dubbed a "frunk" -- for "front trunk." Total storage capacity is about 63 cubic feet, or comparable to a small SUV.

Unencumbered by the contours of a traditional internal combustion engine and chassis, the hood of the Tesla is low and blends into a bullet-shaped front facia. With a nicely rounded rump and bulging fender-wells, the car looks athletic and fast -- which it is. In naming it 2013 Car of the Year, Motor Trend called the Tesla S half sports car, half Rolls-Royce.

Interestingly, the Tesla has a curb weight of about 4,700 pounds, or roughly the same as a four-wheel-drive Ford Explorer. (Yikes.) That it still has such amazing torque is an engineering wonder.

Brady, one of the local Tesla S owners, points out that it has the weight distribution of a skateboard, since the heavy lithium ion battery pack essentially forms the floor of the car. The electric motor is located between the rear wheels.

Inside Elam's car, which served as our test vehicle for this report, the cabin is a high-tech wonderland. Aside from the steering wheel, which is more or less standard issue, the rest of the cabin looks as if it were lifted from a space ship. A giant touch-screen interface -- eight-inches wide and 17-inches deep -- divides the dash.

Elam demonstrated how he could turn on the car's air conditioning with his smart phone. Opening the panoramic roof is a matter of dragging your finger across the dash touchscreen. The virtual speedometer is front and center on the instrument cluster, as you might expect, and a line-graph tracks your real-time energy use as if it were the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

Interestingly, the Tesla S comes with no center stack, so if you want cup-holders and storage compartments you'll have to turn to after-market products.

DRIVING IMPRESSIONS

Everyone's first question about an electric car should be "what is its range." Unlike filling up a gasoline powered car -- which takes a few minutes -- recharging the Tesla's batteries usually takes hours. Running out of power on a trip results in something called "bricking" -- an appropriate metaphor.

Both local owners we talked with opted for a bigger, 85 kilowatt-hour battery -- a 45 kWh battery is standard -- that extends the operating range of the Tesla S Model to about 265 miles. Elam says he routinely drives his Tesla round-trip to Knoxville without a problem. The bigger battery is a costly option though, adding $20,000 to the bottom line.

Recharging is accomplished at home with a special power cord and it takes about 6.5 hours to fully charge a depleted S Model battery. Tesla is building a network of supercharging stations that can top off a battery in 30 minutes, but it will take years -- maybe decades -- to become widespread in the heartland.

In a short test drive on East Brainerd Road I was astonished at the combination of whisper-quiet operation -- all you can hear is a little tire and wind noise -- and enormous bursts of acceleration made possible by depressing your right foot. The ear searches for the familiar symphony of a V-8 engine under full throttle, but it never happens.

BOTTOM LINE

Here's the fun part. Elam said his loaded Tesla S stickered for about $90,000 after a $7,500 federal tax credit. The Tesla S has a base price of $57,000, but add the bigger battery, leather interior, panoramic roof, 22-inch wheels and special paint, and the cost spirals upward quickly.

Some of that cost is obviously recovered over time in lower fuel bills. The company estimates, using prevailing electric rates in Tennessee, that owners here can power a Tesla Model S for about 2.5 cents a mile. The EPA estimates the Tesla uses energy at a gas-engine equivalent of about 90 miles per gallon.

A service facility is available in Atlanta, and Tesla offers a mobile service contract as well.

One of Tesla's corporate goals is to someday lower the price of its cars substantially to accommodate more mainstream buyers. I, for one, can't wait for that day to arrive.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycol umnist.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...

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