For an electric car, Tesla Model S gets a lot of juice.
The stylishly sculpted plug-in soda can torpedo from Silicon Valley — its sleek, lithium ion battery-charged aluminum body capable of attaining recorded speeds of 0 to 60 mph in less than four seconds — has been piling up the superlatives in recent months, culminating with the auto industry’s coveted Motor Trend Car of the Year Award in November.
The zippy four-door sedan is the first vehicle in the magazine’s 64-year history to earn that distinction without the traditional element of concealing an internal combustion engine under its hood.
“I think we’re actually at a pivotal turning point in history,” said Elon Musk, Tesla Motors’ cherub-faced CEO, during the splashy announcement party at Manhattan’s Skylight West Studios. In classic tech-world fashion, Musk accepted his trophy with a heavy dose of Steve Jobs-style theatrics and aggrandizing. “What has been achieved here is an electric car that is truly the best car of any kind,” Musk said. “It’s not the best car if you have to have an electric car — it’s just the best car.”
At a time when many New Yorkers were wrangling with gasoline rationing in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the crowning of an electric car as the best in the business seemed rather apropos. On the flipside, large swaths of the storm-battered city also lacked electricity, rendering any battery-powered transport just as useless.
In any case, energy proved to be in far greater supply than the Model S. The California-based company manufactured only 350 of the high-tech machines in its first quarter of production, with plans to make another 2,500 to 3,000 by the end of 2012. Thousands of reservation holders, who plunked down the minimum $5,000 deposit to even test drive a showroom model, are still awaiting delivery of their very own Model S, making it arguably the hottest and most exclusive electronic innovation since the iPad. And, based on the Apple-esque 17-inch touchscreen dashboard controls, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was made by the same company.
Musk, the tech billionaire whose other job is building rockets to Mars, loaned the keys to his personal souped-up 416-horsepower edition for Motor Trend’s initial road test.
Perhaps even more impressive than its high performance numbers, Model S also elicits a type of visceral acclaim that’s typically reserved for more decadent, less eco-friendly rides.
“It’s wide, long, low, and looks great,” said Motor Trend Editor-in-Chief Edward Loh during a videotaped presentation. “Especially from the rear,” he added, drawing chuckles from assembled gawkers.
Later, crouching behind the taillights of a cherry red showroom model parked on stage, Loh outlined a few of the sexy sedan’s more striking backside attributes.
“For an electric car, or any of these alternative vehicles, it doesn’t have dorky, lame proportions,” Loh explained.
Specifically, Model S avoids the clunky sort of camelback look of, say, the Toyota Prius, whereby the industry’s top-selling hybrid displays “a higher butt than a nose,” he noted. By comparison, Tesla’s snout-to-tail ratio appears much more level.
Loh seemed even more impressed by the depth of Tesla’s rear haunches. (In keeping with anatomical metaphors, think of these as the car’s hips.) Model S is by no means the Mae West of the contemporary luxury market in this regard. “That would be the Bentley Continental GT,” said Loh. But, it’s not supposed to be, either.
According to Franz von Holzhausen, Tesla’s chief designer and creative director, the intended body type is more akin to that of an elite modern athlete than some voluptuous icon of the Jazz Age. “That kind of sculpted physique is all about efficiency, and the big idea of an electric car is about efficiency,” von Holzhausen said. “There’s a musculature to the car. There’s a little bit of toughness and good stance and proportion, which is important. But, at the end of the day, it’s this lean, beautiful physique.”
Albeit one with an apparent blemish.
While the hindquarters of the Model S are a big asset, at least design wise, the front of the car can be a detraction. In fact, it’s one of the few elements of the Model S to draw any criticism from Motor Trend.
In place of a traditional toothy front grille, Model S sports a dark glassy oval-shaped cap. “We call it a nose cone,” said von Holzhausen, explaining that, from a functional standpoint, the electric motor doesn’t require the same ventilation as the typical old-school gas-guzzler.
Compared to the various shiny chrome mesh patterns of many identifiable brands on the road these days, however, Tesla’s space-shuttle-like tip looks a little nondescript.
One judge called it “a missed opportunity to establish brand identity.”
To hear von Holzhausen tell it, creating a new identity was the whole point. “For me, it was important to have a place where the badge could live and become part of the face,” said the designer, who stands by the cone concept, despite its detractors. “It really helps to set off the Tesla ‘T’ and the branding and give the car a sporty but regal and identifiable character for the face.”
Front-end styling aside, it is unquestionably the most elegant electric car on the market. But, even von Holzhausen admits, that’s not saying much.
“Look at the competition,” he said. “They blame the looks on aerodynamics, function, and stuff like that. But, we have the best aerodynamics and still it’s a beautiful car.”