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Electric car sports luxury credentials

Tesla hopes its Model S will have appeal beyond its carbon footprint.

Journalists crowd around as CEO and chairman of Tesla Motors Elon Musk drives the Tesla Model S electric automobile during a media launch in Hawthorn, California March 26, 2009. (Fred Prouser/Reuters)

MENLO PARK, Calif. — When executives at Tesla Motors unveiled their electric sedan to a gathering of Silicon Valley customers last week, what they really wanted to talk about was what was under the hood. And what was under the hood was nothing.

The crowd of about 200 people applauded and pushed up against the rope line, as the company’s chief executive, Elon Musk, pulled the Model S into the showroom.

Priced at $49,900 after a federal tax credit, the sleek, sporty sedan marks the first time a highway-ready electric vehicle will be offered as a competitor in the luxury car market. When the Model S rolls onto the salesroom floor in late 2010, Tesla hopes its sweeping curves and ground-hugging aggressiveness will offer high-end shoppers something new: environmentalism as a symbol of status.

The car on display had glowing orange and blue trimming around the headlights, door handles that retracted to lie flush against the body. Inside, the dashboard was dominated by what looked like an iPod the size of a legal pad — a 17" touch screen that will control the radio, GPS display and air-conditioning.

The base model will have a range of 160 miles. Expanded with a bigger battery pack, it will go up to 300 miles before it needs to be recharged. According to Musk, even if the car is powered by coal-produced electricity, running it will produce less carbon-dioxide than a Toyota Prius.

But what Musk and the other executives seemed most interested in talking about was luggage space. The car’s electric batteries and drive train sit low, giving the Model S an unusual carrying capacity for a vehicle its size. Tesla says the car can seat five adults, along with two children in a folding rear-seat. The trunk is unusually spacious. And, under the hood, the absence of a conventional motor means there’s space for a small, second storage compartment.

“I think if you tried to put a surfboard, a 50” television, and a mountain bike in an SUV you probably couldn’t,” Musk told his assembled customers. “You can here.”