(Continued from Part One)
Ticket to Ride
Teslas are not without their quirks and faults, even from the viewpoint of their most ardent supporters. Driving a Roadster is often likened to “playing a video game,” such is the detached, point-and-shoot quality of the direct steering and single gear transmission. And all but the earliest Roadsters sport round buttons in lieu of a gearshift, and the 2.0 I rode in came with a pretty janky JVC audio/navigation system – especially considering the car’s six-figure price tag. But, hey, the newer Teslas are going to be stuffed to the gills with flashy tech.
Detractors cry foul about everything from the absurdity of $100,000 sports cars being built on the government’s (loaned) dime to the aforementioned long tailpipe theory: Building new factories for these things create massive emissions! What about when all of those battery packs die and have to be thrown out? Toxic Landfill City! And then there’s Elon Musk, Tesla’s billionaire CEO who famously co-founded PayPal and also founded SpaceX and SolarCity. SpaceX makes rocketships. Seriously – in 2008 NASA gave them a $1.8 billion contract to fly rockets into outer space. Personally, I think flying things into space is awesome, but certain nay sayers see “electric sports car,” “rocketships,” “solar panels,” “government contracts,” and “billionaire CEO” and put them together to equal something rude my editor won’t let me say on TechnoBuffalo. Musk’s a space hero to some, but an easy target for others looking to take him down, and the EV movement along with it.
Then again, Foster the People didn’t play the Nissan Leaf launch party, and I don’t recall GM raising $40 million from folks plunking down up to forty large to reserve Chevy Volts without so much as having stepped in a test mule. And so there I was, feeling lucky that the woman minding the Model X test ride queue took pity on me, some guy with a laptop and a press badge trying to write an article while rich people in hemp pants drank gin and tonics on the couch next to me.
“You in line for the X?” she asked.
“S,” I replied, showing her my official Model S Test Ride ticket. “I couldn’t get an X ticket.”
“But you’re press,” she said, glancing down at my lanyard. “And they’re short a few for this next ride. C’mon.”
The Good, the Bad, and the Falcon Wings
She beckoned me out of the tent and into a waiting pen cordoned off by a concrete guard rail. A single pre-production Model S and a single pre-pre-production Model X were giving (mostly drunk) people incredibly short rides around an incredibly short test course featuring the world’s cutest little teeny-tiny slalom. I took my ride in the X, fired off a few thousand tweets about it, and then queued back up for the S. I emerged from the latter just in time to catch the second half of Helena Beat with a crowd of maybe a few hundred, most of whom were more interested in something else than catching one of the hottest music acts on the planet from point blank range.
I’m not really a fan of the Model X crossover right now, but it’s early in the game. This is a Silicon Valley startup-style car maker, so they take pre-orders, let people gawk at prototypes, and generally try to drum hype up and fundraise very early in their product cycle. Tesla’s an iterative way of making cars, at least to a larger extent than the Fords and GMs of the world. So the X will change before it ships, and the current projected ship date of Early 2014 may or may not wind up being accurate, even as vague a window as “Early 2014″ is. That said, I didn’t much love the X.
What I did love was the S. I’ve always loved the Model S. It’s sexy in a fast, but oh so slightly understated European kind of way. It combines absurd technology with the practicality of a hatchback and whimsy of an old-school rear-facing jump seat. It seats five adults with two trunks free for cargo and emits nothing harmful from its … it doesn’t even have a tailpipe. And if you trick it out it goes really fast without making much noise. I love just about everything about it save that silly 17-inch touchscreen in the center stack – I hope I eat my words, but that thing just screams “Distracted driver disaster” to me.
And I’m not so keen on the fact that every time I price an S on Tesla’s site, options carry me well above the $70,000 mark. But I get it: premium vehicles command premium prices.
The S is exactly what the Roadster follow up should be: A BMW fighter that combines better styling, sporty performance, and bleeding edge eco-friendly tech with a base price that moves the company from “exotic sports car” to “mainstream luxury” territory. I may not be willing and able to finance a $70,000 sedan, but plenty of people are. Yay, shrinking middle class! (Sarcasm. That was sarcasm, folks).
The X, however, is a strange anomaly of a vehicle. On the one hand it fits seven adults with two full trunks’ worth of cargo space left over, can haul even more stuff when you fold the rear two rows of seats away, and shares the S’s basic chassis and drivetrain. On the other hand it’s a better looking Honda Crosstour with absurdly gratuitous gullwing doors and an electric drivetrain that prices it out of Crosstour/Acura ZDX territory. Not that many mainstream car buyers have garages tall enough to accommodate those gullwing doors – er, “Falcon Wings.”
But here’s the thing: For as much as I wasn’t so hot on the new Tesla, just about every non-media guest in the giant room that night was in love with it. People were dropping stacks of cash to get as high on the reservation list as possible, and then lining up for their first test rides. Businessmen from all over the world were taking turns standing under the falcon wings of the prototype while friends snapped Instagrams. When Elon Musk tried to open the X’s front trunk, it wouldn’t budge. When I took my test ride I asked if the middle seats slid forward, because it was near impossible to get in and out of the third row, the Tesla rep didn’t have an answer. Nobody knew, and fewer people cared.
“It’s a prototype,” he said with a smile. “By the time it ships design changes will of course make for easier ingress and egress.”
And to say it again: Tesla sold $40,000,000 worth of reservations on the X in less than a week.
My rides in both vehicles left me impressed when it came to ride quality and perceived handling performance. Body roll was incredibly flat through corners, particularly in the sedan. You can watch and read about why in our Model S and Model X Test Ride videos.
To Mars! … by Way of the Masses
Elon Musk has previously said he started Telsa and SolarCity because he’s worried about global warming. Alternative, sustainable energy is one way to combat the effects of reliance on fossil fuels without giving up things like fast cars and hot showers. Musk founded Space X, in part, because humans may not be able to live on Earth forever. “Sooner or later,” he wrote in Esquire back in 2008, “we must expand life beyond our little blue mud ball–or go extinct.”
Space X already has plans to get humans to Mars by way of their Falcon rocket and Dragon capsule. That could happen as soon as 2018. But first Tesla has a true mass market electric vehicle to build. After Model S begins delivery this year, and Model X starts reaching customers in early ’14, Tesla plans to launch a car based on an all-new “Gen Three” platform that will be shorter, lighter, and cheaper to make than the Model S/X platform. An electric sedan built on Gen Three is currently expected to debut in 2015 at a base price right around $30,000.
Raise lots of money, generate buzz, pull early adopters into the fold, turn said adopters into evangelists via the auto industry equivalent of a Private Beta (the Roadster) – sounds an awful lot like the game plan for a prototypical Valley startup if you ask me. Except Tesla isn’t building photo sharing services or social games for smartphones. They’re making electric cars as part of the CEO’s vision to save humanity by expanding our way of life beyond fossil fuel and, yes, beyond calling a single planet home.
But first they have to ship the sedan and refine the SUV. Which brings us back to the owners’ club meetup and our gracious host, the health tech executive. When I saw her later at the launch party, she was still debating the fate of her garage. “I’d hate to give up my S reservation,” she explained. “I love that car.” But the decision making process wasn’t just about her own needs. “As much as I don’t want to do it, though, I may have to transfer the reservation to the X. I’ve got dogs. And the dogs just won’t be as happy in a sedan as they would be in the X.”
Even in the 21st Centry land of electric cars and rocketships bound for Mars, sometimes our future rests on a simple decision best made by head and heart in concert. Wouldn’t your dogs be happiest with plenty of room and giant falcon doors to jump in and out of? Yeah, Tesla seems to think so, too.