Electric car sports luxury credentials

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.”

If anything, Tesla’s executives seemed set on downplaying the car’s environmental credentials, talking up instead its power, size and comfort.

“It’s about not making people uncomfortable with a purchase that already is different enough from what they’re used to,” said Franz Von Holzhausen, Tesla’s senior design executive. “It’s a good looking vehicle, and oh, by the way, it’s electric.”

Tesla’s focus may have been dictated by its customer base. In the parking lot outside, a few Prius cars were parked, but they were far outnumbered by more expensive, less environmentally conscious options: Mercedes-Benz and BMW SUVs, even a black, bulky Hummer H2.

According to B.J. Gallagher, author of “It's Never Too Late to Be What You Might Have Been” and a former sales consultant to the car industry, California drivers like to broadcast their environmentalist credentials, but not at the expense of luxury and status. “I think it’s brilliant to marry muscle with green,” she said.

Indeed, potential customers gathered in a long line as Zak Edson, the company’s director of product planning, offered rides around the dealership, gunning the car’s silent motor through the parking lot.

“That’s incredible,” said Gabriel Bilek, an aerospace engineer who had come to see the unveiling. “Four people in the car and still a lot of pick up.”

“All my cars are American made,” Bilek said, later, as the Model S continued to make its rounds. “They’re all V8s.”

Bilek said he had driven Corvette convertibles until a year earlier when he bought Tesla’s first car, the $109,000 Roadster, a low-riding, two-seater, sports car capable of doing 0 to 60 miles per hour in 3.7 seconds. It was Bilek’s first electric car.

“It’s just as aggressive, just as fast,” he said. “It doesn’t have the growl, but it will leave the Corvette behind.”

Asked what image he thought the Roadster projected, Bilek answered: “It’s a statement that I can cleanly live an exciting life, without burning any oil.” He planned to buy a Model S. “It means I love the design and speed and luxury of a BMW and I’m not using any gasoline,” he said.

“Then, if you put solar panels on your house, then you’ve closed the circle,” he said.

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A climate change collision course

Forecast: Easier passage through the Arctic

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