Who resuscitated the electric (super) car?

CN&R writer takes a sun-powered spin in a Tesla Model S

Tesla owner Steve Foster hasn’t had much time to accumulate any junk in his new car’s “frunk.”

Tesla owner Steve Foster hasn’t had much time to accumulate any junk in his new car’s “frunk.”

Photo by Emiliano Garcia-Sarnoff

Tesla connection:
Go to www.teslamotors.com to learn more about the Tesla Model S electric car.

Steve Foster hit the accelerator pedal of his incredibly sexy new black Tesla Model S. I actually felt my cheeks—extra-chubby from the holidays—slam back a half-inch toward my ears.

“When you hit the gas, all you hear is a bit of tire noise and wind,” he noted.

The soft-spoken disability attorney still uses the phrase “hit the gas” when he refers to his electric car’s accelerator pedal, but in his defense, saying “hit the combination of solar, natural gas, hydroelectric and other renewable sources of power” would be a bit of a mouthful.

As we turned a corner, I saw a girl I barely know, and instinctively started waving my arms to catch her attention. Unfortunately, the Tesla took the turn with such alacrity that by the time she saw me in the passenger seat, she likely hadn’t had time to recognize me and how cool I looked throwing my arms around with epileptic desperation. Damn.

Then, Foster—mensch that he is—pulled over and let me drive.

The experience of driving a Tesla—named after famed Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla—is quite a bit different than that of the typical luxury sport sedan, and a lot different than the four-cylinder, dual-baby-seat-equipped 2004 Pontiac Vibe that I’m normally rollin’.

Foster’s Tesla goes from zero to 60 in about five seconds, putting it in elite sports-car terrain. But, because of its gearless electric motor, it does so in one smooth, high-torque and nearly silent continuous arc, like the Millennium Falcon going into hyperdrive. There’s none of the internal-combustion engine’s throaty whine or its jerks as it climbs through gears. Because of a center-mounted battery and drive train, the Model S handles like a lithe roadster, cruises like a luxury car and has tons of storage capacity: not only a trunk in the back, but also a “frunk” in the front.

With its 85-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery, the Model S (starting price: $70,000) can travel 300 miles on a single charge. Inside, the car is outfitted with a massive 17-inch touch screen from which nearly every feature can be controlled—from asking it where the best sushi is, to navigating there, to visualizing if you’ve got enough of a charge left to do so.

Just like a cell phone, a Model S charges in Craig Horner’s charging garage.

Photo by Emiliano Garcia-Sarnoff

And, despite a few over-publicized fires (in which no one was hurt), the Model S is, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), ranked among the safest cars in existence, with five (out of five) stars awarded in every category. In fact, according to Tesla, no one has ever been seriously injured in a Model S. In short, it’s awesome—and all other synonymous adjectives, too.

Foster and I drove to Sun Valley Acoustical Corporation in south Chico to meet up with its CEO, Craig Horner. Horner was Chico’s first Tesla Model S owner. He placed the down payment on his after looking at a clay model of one, and reading a list of specifications. Horner got the car three years later, in December of last year. “Everything they said it would do, it does—and more,” he said.

Horner—who has a pale, flame-colored goatee, and a Silicon Valley-type enthusiasm coupled with a Chicoan’s lack of pretension—is a car guy, a technology guy and an environmentalist, making him the perfect Tesla early adopter.

“I’ve been waiting for this for 10 years,” he said. “Once there was the promise of a five-to-seven-passenger vehicle with real range that can basically run off the sun …” Horner trailed off as if having a spiritual experience while talking about the car.

He said that he already has a deposit down on the 2015 Tesla Model X, an SUV with gull-wing doors. “It feels really good to be going down the road and not have any exhaust going out and not be polluting this earth,” Horner added.

On his own dime, Horner has transformed a large section of his cavernous warehouse at Sun Valley Acoustical into a four-car Tesla charging garage, which he permits Tesla owners to use for free.

And, while Horner’s Model S sat there charging and looking for system updates over Wi-Fi like a giant iPhone, Horner told me that a Tesla can be driven from Mexico to Canada for free, charging at nothing but Tesla Supercharger stations. These Supercharger stations—the closest of which is in Corning—can dump in 130 miles worth of charge during a half-hour leg-stretching session. And, according to the amazingly named, Tony Stark-like über-inventor Elon Musk, creator of Tesla (along with PayPal, SpaceX and, possibly some day, the “Hyperloop,” a theoretical mass-transportation system that would whisk passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in a half-hour via pressurized tubes), they’ll be free forever. By 2015, there will be enough charging stations to be able to traverse the whole country.

Both Foster and Horner have solar arrays on their homes large enough to charge their cars entirely from the sun. But if a Tesla owner (or any other electric-car owner, for that matter) plugs into the existing electrical grid, the car’s environmental benefits get a bit more complicated.

Here in California, about 55 percent of our electrical energy comes from natural gas, 14 percent is hydroelectric, and nearly 16 percent is nuclear (with coal making up the remainder). Thus, based on a 40-mile driving day, a Tesla driver would generate about 8 1/2 pounds of CO2 emissions in a Model S (as opposed to 35 pounds in a gas-powered vehicle), according to the Tesla website.

However, a road trip up to Idaho to visit Yellowstone could be accomplished with a whopping 80 percent of the electrical charge in the Potato State coming from hydroelectric power. Pretty sweet. But cruise down to Utah and it’s practically like shoveling coal into the back of a 19th century mini-train: Utah gets 82 percent of its electricity from coal.

But, though it’s possible to drive them nearly for free, the Tesla Model S—all pimped-out like the ones Foster and Horner have—are sticker-priced at just under 100 grand (before $10,000 in federal and state credits lend some assistance), making it still out of range for the great majority of car shoppers out there.