An Electric Car With Juice

The two-seat Tesla Roadster, with a top speed of 135 mph, can travel more than 200 miles before it needs to be recharged.
The two-seat Tesla Roadster, with a top speed of 135 mph, can travel more than 200 miles before it needs to be recharged. (Tesla Motors)

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By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 22, 2006

Detroit is floundering, gas prices are rising -- now Silicon Valley is stepping in with an impractical-but-cool solution: A sexy, pricey and fast electric car that uses the same lithium ion batteries found in your cellphone or laptop.

The Tesla Roadster goes from zero to 60 in four noiseless seconds, has a top speed of 135 mph and can roam for more than 200 miles before needing a recharge.

This is not your father's electric car. The $100,000 vehicle, with its sports car looks, is more Ferrari than Prius -- and more about testosterone than granola.

Silicon Valley start-up Tesla Motors Inc. raised $60 million in financing from San Francisco Bay area tech giants to get this car on the road. Those famous Toyota Prius owners Larry Page and Sergey Brin -- yes, the Google guys -- have invested, as have executives from eBay Inc. and PayPal.

The company is headed by entrepreneur Martin Eberhard, the man once behind a gadget called the RocketeBook. That product, sort of an iPod for books, didn't catch on, but Eberhard sold the company in 2000 to the media company Gemstar for $187 million.

Fittingly for a car designed in Silicon Valley, the Roadster comes with built-in satellite navigation technology and an iPod dock that allows drivers to control the music player via the car's standard Blaupunkt stereo. Owners will be able to check their service records online, naturally.

And, of course, there's a blog. At the Tesla Web site, Eberhard started making his case for the car and his company this week. Bottom line: Electric cars don't have to be for wimps.

"Most electric cars were designed by and for people who fundamentally don't think we should drive," Eberhard said in his Wednesday blog posting. "We at Tesla Motors love cars."

Unlike most electric cars, the company's literature notes, the Tesla Roadster holds enough juice to make the round trip between Silicon Valley and the Pebble Beach Golf Links.

While the flashy two-seater may be too expensive for most buyers to consider, the community of electric car aficionados has received Tesla warmly.

David Goldstein, president of the Electric Vehicle Association of Greater Washington D.C., said the Tesla is "the most exciting thing to happen to [electric vehicles] in a long time."

"It tells the public that electric cars are not those slow, silly cars that some companies have built in the past," he said.

The Tesla Roadster was unveiled this week in Santa Monica. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger made a surprise appearance and was taken on a test spin -- it was unclear yesterday if Schwarzenegger showed up to the event in one of the gas-guzzling Hummers he has sometimes favored.

Tesla Motors started taking orders for the car this week, though a publicist would not say how many customers the company has signed up. The first production models should be delivered next year, he said. A sedan is also on the drawing board, tentatively scheduled for an appearance in 2008.

Tesla has plans to open sales locations in Los Angeles and San Francisco this year, and in Chicago, New York and Miami by the end of 2007. Buyers outside those areas will be charged a $10,000 out-of-service-area premium to cover costs for transporting the vehicle for servicing during the life of the car.

Only 10 Tesla Roadsters have been built so far. Four are on the West Coast, to charm prospective buyers there, and the other six are in Britain and scheduled for use in safety tests.

British carmaker Group Lotus Plc is building the cars at its factory on a contract basis. Lotus submitted a winning concept design for the car and Tesla Motors lured several executives and engineers away from the British company during the three years the Tesla Roadster was secretly in development.

At auto aficionado Web sites, first impressions of the car have been highly favorable, though some knocked the car for looking a bit too much like the British carmaker's Elise sports car.

Asked one critic, posting at Autoblog.com: "Why not just buy a Lotus Elise and use some of the $40,000+ you save to buy some gas?"


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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