Tesla Model S comes to town
Tesla hopes its Model S will change the world, but will Hongkongers buy into the electric dream?
Mitt Romney called Tesla Motors a "loser company" during last year's US presidential campaign, in a swipe at Barack Obama's tax breaks for green energy initiatives. What he didn't mention was that more than 3,500 American jobs the carmaker has created.
While Romney lost the presidential race, Tesla may be onto a winner with its premium Model S electric sedan, which won several car of the year accolades in 2012. Hurdles remain, however, in encouraging motorists to take the leap of faith into electric vehicles.
Silicon Valley-based Tesla was started by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk in 2003, with ambitions to produce an electric sports car. Built around the dinky chassis of a Lotus, Tesla's Roadster was the first electric car to run more than 320 kilometres on a full charge.
The Model S beats that by a wide margin; it travels about 500 kilometres on a fully charged 85kWh battery pack.
Chief designer Franz von Holzhausen, who previously worked for Mazda, says Tesla "set out to change the world" with the Model S.
"We sat down and started talking about what the Model S would be. He [Musk] gave me a laundry list of things that didn't equal a sedan by any stretch of the imagination: seven passengers, best aero-efficiency, lowest centre of gravity, the best zero to 60 time of any sedan in the market, best functionality - and, of course, the best-looking car in the world."
That was 2008, and Von Holzhausen and his team unveiled a prototype based on the seemingly impossible brief eight months later. In the middle of last year, the Model S was launched in the US.
"Not only does it hit every one of those items on that list, but it's actually better," Von Holzhausen says.
"Tesla Model S comes to town", Video by Mark Sharp
Potential buyers in Hong Kong have a chance to discover for themselves if the car lives up to the hype. Tesla has brought to town Asia's first Model S - a left-hand drive - for test-drives. A special permit was secured and the car is limited to a 5-kilometre circuit of road around Cyberport. The first sedans are expected to be delivered to local buyers towards the end of this year.
Tesla designed the Model S from the ground up, rather than build it around another carmaker's chassis. It is propelled by a floor-mounted, liquid-cooled lithium-ion battery pack that comes in three options - 40kWh, 60kWh or 85kWh - giving it a lower centre of gravity than a traditional car. That gives the sedan greater stability, which it needs: the Model S weighs 2,108kg. That's about 400kg more than most cars of a similar size.
Its sleek, sporty body is about as long as a Porsche Panamera, at almost five metres, and looks not unlike a Jaguar XF. Although it doesn't technically need a grille - a feature that is said to provoke an emotional response in buyers - in its place is a moulded black panel. A unique exterior feature is chrome handles embedded in the doors that slide out at the touch. Once the doors are closed, they retract to maximise aerodynamics. The charge port is located unobtrusively in the rear light cluster.
Another benefit of the floor-mounted batteries is more than twice the storage space of a normal car, a boot at the back and front (Tesla calls this the "frunk"). Behind the back seats, there's room for two optional rear-facing seats for children.
Without a transmission tunnel in the cabin, there's room between the front seats to store a bag, and the middle rear passenger is not deprived of leg room.
The dashboard is bereft of clutter, with a screen for the dials behind the wheel and a whopping 17-inch touch screen in the middle.
"This replaces almost every single button in the car," says Kevin Yu , Tesla's Asia-Pacific director. "The only two buttons we have are the hazard lights and the glove compartment."
The touch screen allows the driver to operate everything from the lights and boot to the air conditioner and stereo, all with the swipe of a finger. The sunroof can be opened in increments by sliding it on the screen image of the car.
"The screen gives the driver basically a full view of what the car is doing at any given time," Yu says.
With the key in your pocket, the Model S starts up when you enter the cabin. Since it's totally silent, the only indication it has been fired up - or should we say switched on - is the illuminated screens.
With 440Nm of torque available as soon as you put your foot down, acceleration is surprisingly rapid and smooth, without the need for gear changes. Does it go uphill? Yes, like mud off a stick. The lack of petrol is no impediment to performance in the Model S, which can sprint from zero to 100km/h in an impressive 4.6 seconds. Its top speed is 210km/h.
In motion, the only noticeable sounds are the breeze wafting from the air conditioner and the tyres on the road. Lift your foot off the accelerator and it immediately starts to slow down as brake regeneration kicks in, feeding power back to the battery pack. (As a safety feature, brake lights illuminate even though the driver hasn't braked.) So after 10 laps of the Cyberport circuit, there was no sign of depletion on the battery indicator.
Tesla says the battery will need replacing after eight years - an issue motorists face when considering the switch to electric. On the bright side, since it's green, local buyers will not have to pay a first registration tax on the car, which should cost HK$600,000, Yu says.
That's slightly more expensive than the Jaguar XF but considerably cheaper than a BMW 6 Series with tax on top. But it will be much cheaper to run when weighing up the cost of a full electric charge versus the equivalent cost of petrol over a distance of 500 kilometres.
Despite the tax incentive, low running costs and an impressive performance, it remains to be seen if Hongkongers can be persuaded to buy into fully electric vehicles. Although there are a few hundred charging ports in public car parks around the city, the fact that most people live in high-rises means the Model S can't be plugged into the garage socket overnight.
Charge times vary but a full charge from a standard household socket should take between six and 10 hours.
And what of the petrolheads who love the feel of a pumping engine and the roar of an exhaust note? Although Tesla won't tweak the Model S to produce an artificial noise, Yu says, it has installed some features to keep purists happy. One is creep mode. This makes the car crawl forward when you take your foot off the brake while stationary, as with a regular automatic.
So although Tesla hopes to change the world, it obviously isn't convinced that the world is ready for anything too radical.