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By Daniel DeBolt
Dozens of prospective buyers and curious gearheads formed a line on Saturday at Menlo Park's Tesla Motors dealership to sit inside the first mass production car to be developed and built entirely by a Silicon Valley company.
As members of the public got their first close-up look at the new Tesla Model S sedan, Menlo Park resident Rich Shane said he'd already made up his mind to buy the new Tesla, potentially the first electric sedan that can go as far as a conventional gas powered car on a tank of gas.
He said he canceled his reservation for a Nissan Leaf because its 100-mile range is well beat by the Tesla, which can run for 160 miles if you buy the $59,000 base model and as far as 300 miles with an optional $20,000 battery pack. "I couldn't accept not being able to get to and from Sacramento," Shane said.
Set to compete with BMW's profitable five series, the Tesla S is an attempt to build a luxury car with a sports car feel. With a compact electric motor, no transmission and a lithium-ion battery spread flat under the floor, the company claims the car has twice the storage room as the BMW five series, with substantial trunk space at both ends. It can also seat seven, if two optional rear-facing seats are installed in the back that can only be used by small children.
The placement of a battery that weighs as much as 1,000 pounds under the floor gives the Model S the lowest center of gravity of any production car, Tesla claims, helping the 3,700 pound car to handle better than other car in its class and almost as well as the Lotus-designed Tesla Roadster, said store manager Neil Joseph.
The electric motor generates 306 horsepower at 7,000 rpm and 362 foot pounds of torque until a 14,000 rpm redline. Tesla claims it can accelerate from 0-60 miles per hour in 5.6 seconds and reach 130 miles per hour. A sport version is said to be able to do that in less than five seconds.
Once inside the car, most could not get their eyes off the 17-inch, high-definition display in the center of the dash. It functions like an enlarged iPad with Internet access over a 3G connection, allowing clear access to Google maps and climate controls.
More than 6,000 people have already put themselves on a waiting list to buy the car and more than 600 have put down a $40,000 refundable deposit, said Tesla sales adviser Kyle Thompson. The car is set to be built in 2012 in Tesla's new assembly line at the former NUMMI plant in Fremont, with 5,000 to be manufactured in the first year and 20,000 a year after that.
A federal tax rebate brings the price of the car down to just under $50,000, "which sort of seems in the range I would expect," Mr. Shane said. The price can go up for those who want more than the 160-mile range. An intermediate option for a 230-mile battery pack costs another $10,000.
Mr. Thompson said the expensive battery was well protected from road hazards by a steel plate and a frame. It can also be removed from the bottom of the car in minutes, should the need arise.
Hooked up to a 240-volt outlet, the 300-mile battery can charge in only five hours. Unlike the Nissan Leaf, the battery charger comes standard in the price of the car. Tesla expects the battery to retain 70 percent of its capacity after 100,000 miles.
The Model S has yet to undergo crash testing, but Tesla expects a five-star rating.
While the $50,000 car may be too expensive for many, Tesla may use profits from the Model S to pay for the development of a cheaper model. Mr. Thompson said in three years, Tesla expects to sell a $30,000 to $40,000 electric car.
Note: An earlier version of this story said the 17-inch, high-definition display in the center of the dash is a $1,900 option. The display is actually standard in every Model S sedan and not an option.