Driving the new Tesla Model S out of its factory in Fremont, California, you pass the empty glass and steel husk of neighboring Solyndra Corp., another Silicon Valley technology venture that was propelled by optimism and bountiful government loans. Solyndra made solar panels, but it broke apart on the rocks of business reality, and its politicized bankruptcy has been a daunting daily reminder to Tesla’s 1700 employees of the consequences of failure.
However, there are reasons for at least temporary optimism for Tesla. We only got 10 minutes in the car so we couldn’t test its range, but here’s what we can report: Our few miles in the Model S revealed a vehicle that would meet a BMW owner’s definition of a sports sedan.
The 362-hp Signature model we drove, strained its leash with its prodigious electric muscles and flat-tracked through 80-mph sweepers directed by fast steering with piano-wire tension to the wheels. It pounced from an on-ramp like the jaguar on the hood of the Jaguars it resembles, hitting 100 mph with a whisper of electromotive acceleration. Tesla says the hottest model, the Signature Performance, which has the largest available battery and produces the most torque, will hit 60 mph in the mid-fours. At this point, we don’t doubt it.
The windows are leak-free, the doors don’t squeak, and the seats feel comfortable, though rear headroom is pinched. The various menus of the giant, glowing, iPad-like central display are easy to learn and access while driving, and the combination of a long wheelbase, stiff structure, and compliant tune of the air-spring suspension makes for a gentle, cosseting ride. Besides that, the Model S looks like Beyoncé draped over a chaise lounge.
The first customer deliveries were in June, but, in reality, most early buyers won’t receive their cars until much later this year or into next. The sprawling industrial campus that was once a GM/Toyota joint-venture plant spewing out 6000 vehicles per week is currently assembling just one Model S a day in an unusual, vertically integrated process that has the Tesla workers stamping their own sheet metal, injection-molding their own bumper covers, winding their own motors, and upholstering their own seats.
The Model S concentrates much of its 4650-pound curb weight in the 7000-cell battery pack installed under the floor, so it doesn’t feel the pull of lateral g’s like conventional cars with higher centers of gravity. Thus, Tesla is able to get away with a relatively soft suspension while still keeping pitch and roll in check. The driver can choose from three distinct steering-boost levels, and the air-spring suspension offers four ride heights. The monolithic, half-ton battery case underfoot gives passengers the sense of sitting atop a granite slab. Road bumps are heard but barely felt through the dense structure. The Tesla is a double-bacon porker, but what it does with the pounds makes it magical.