The electric car has finally arrived. Tesla, eccentric Elon Musk’s automotive baby, has finally moved on from stuffing lithe Lotuses full of batteries to create its Roadster and has released the Model S, a super sedan for upper-middle class, middle-aged men that find Jaguar’s looks appealing but brand too stuffy. Again, let’s all clap hands: the Model S is a legitimate car that happens to be electric — as well as American.
But wait, we’ve already got the Nissan Leaf and sorta-hybrid Chevy Volt, right? Well, while those vehicles have found niche success — mostly due to their early-adopter cachet, I’d presume — the Model S boasts one specification that the others can’t dream of: 250 miles of pure, silent electric range.
I’ve lived much of my life in L.A., and it’s just as car-obsessed as it’s made out to be. I’m sure plenty of people are driving around in Leafs just as Priuses turned into status symbols years ago. (By the way, automakers need to giving cars names that have natural-sounding plurals.) But people also clock a lot of miles in Southern California, and a 50 mile or more commute is hardly out of the question. With 90-100 miles of range, a Leaf sure requires a lot of plugging in. And what happens when you’re late to a meeting because of a crash on the 405 and forget to juice up at the start of the workday? And, sure, a Volt has a gas engine on board, but how can you keep your eco street cred when you’re filling up and plugging in?
Reviews of the Model S have been generally glowing, with people talking about the car’s incredible performance for a big sedan, thanks to those torquey electric motors. It handles well too, thanks to the floor-mounted battery packs lowering the car’s center of gravity. But that’s all stuff you’d expect from a niche automaker charging between 50 and 100 grand. And if it’s big, rip-roarin’ power one wants, plenty of luxury automakers offer massive, leather-swathed bullets. But they still suck back that dino juice, and even coal-powered plants are cleaner on a grand scale than your car’s engine.
Two-hundred and fifty miles. That’s a lot of driving. While you might easily clock 100 miles with a commute and shuttling kids around, passing 250 in a day is a rare occasion. 250 miles means L.A. to San Diego or Santa Barbara and back. 250 miles means commuting from the South Bay to downtown and back, then heading to Grandma’s house in Orange County for dinner. With that kind of head room, you can drive all day without worry and without trying to score a tiny top-up charge every time you stop at a store. You just plug the thing in at night and let it chill.
That’s not to say that everything’s rosy with Tesla. After being lauded for firing out the first wireless software update for an automobile, Tesla has cut its 2012 revenue projections from $560-600 million to $400-$440 million because of problems ramping up manufacturing output of the Model S. For a company that’s long had occasional cash flow and production issues, that’s nerve-wracking.
And while Tesla’s proprietary ‘Supercharger’ charging technology promises ridiculously fast charging, the charging stations are extremely expensive. And, by nature of being proprietary, they don’t work with the increasingly-standardized chargers used by other vehicles, which means a lower chance of anyone but Tesla plunking down to set up a station. Why would Walgreen’s roll out an unusual charger into its charging network?
But troubles aside, the Model S will succeed because of its range. 250 miles is farther than most people expected electric cars to do any time soon; when Tesla first announced it, and knowing Musk’s propensity to talk big, 250 miles sounded like a gimmick, or vaporware. But that number isn’t supremely optimistic. Motor Trend took a Model S to Vegas, covering 212 miles of desert heat and mountain grades. That’s a hefty drive, albeit one that the Model S’s target audience likely makes often, and the car covered it with aplomb.
Of course, we are talking about a low-production car that’s already experiencing manufacturing issues, and only time will tell if enough people will be willing to plunk down a ton of change to buy a car that may still display teething pains. (Even the biggest automakers, after months of rigorous testing, experience issues with new models.) But while people might complain about the styling, or worry about a car that’s more computer-dependent than anything previous, there’s one thing people can finally stop worrying about: range. For electric cars, that’s a huge milestone.
Image via Motor Trend
Follow Derek Mead on Twitter: @derektmead.