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Tesla ups the ante, makes electric cars more mainstream (w/video)

Will Tesla Motors become the auto industry's next powerhouse innovation or suffer the fate of Tucker? • Tesla is the fast-rising California-based maker of the all-electric Model S luxury sedan, and the company is now focusing its marketing message on Central Florida. I had the chance to test drive a Tesla this past week. (More on that later.) Tucker is the company that in 1948 debuted its advanced automobile before collapsing under negative publicity that, even today, some blame on a conspiracy of the entrenched Big Three auto companies of that era. • This time around, things are different.

The Big Three of GM, Ford and Chrysler are today more like the Diminished Three. And Tesla, started by Paypal and SpaceX co-founder and Forbes 400 billionaire Elon Musk, already is a formidable, publicly traded corporation. Tesla shares that traded under $30 in the past year now hover closer to $180. Tesla's market value is a whopping $21.6 billion.

This is a company with clout, not some startup running up charges on a founder's credit cards to keep the lights on. Tesla comes armed with a remarkable, if very high-end, vehicle that already has won major kudos from the likes of Consumer Reports and top marks from national crash safety experts.

Then there is Tesla chief executive officer and product architect Elon Musk, whose reputation and wealth inspired the Iron Man movie character Tony Stark. That's fun. But it makes it harder to separate the Musk myth from reality.

Musk was most recently spotlighted in mainstream news for touting a new means of high-speed public transportation dubbed the Hyperloop. Passengers would ride in small capsules traveling as fast as 760 mph while floating on a thin cushion of air. Rather than rely on engines, the capsules would surf electromagnetic pulses in a set of tubes that could whisk passengers from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 35 minutes.

Musk, 42, is not building the Hyperloop, just suggesting it as a possibility. His SpaceX project is developing advanced space rockets intended for eventual flights to other planets.

By those standards, his building Tesla cars in a California factory, with an SUV crossover slated as the next model, seems tame.

Now Tesla is pushing deeper into the Florida market.

Tesla operates a modest sales center in east Tampa at 1907 U.S. 301, just north of Adamo Drive. But the company says it is about to expand that center in anticipation of a bigger push into the Tampa Bay and Central Florida market. It already has a foothold in South Florida and is expanding the number of its recharging stations along I-95 and its sole Florida station along I-75 in Fort Myers. Eventually, it will reach the broader Tampa Bay metro area.

Florida already boasts nearly 400 public charging stations, including dozens in the Tampa Bay area, available for any electric vehicle.

Tesla is winning high praise from some early, deep-pocket converts.

"It's the best car I've ever driven — in part because everything is so logical," says Tesla owner Trevor Burgess, CEO of C1 Bank based in St. Petersburg. "I joke that it's like driving a spaceship — only because it is such a leap ahead of any other car I've ever driven."

I must admit the test drive of the Tesla Model S was an impressive experience. The sedan is simply and elegantly designed, quiet without the noise of a combustion engine and roomy even for my 6-foot, 4-inch frame.

There is no avoiding the power of the all-electric vehicle. Taking the vehicle on the interstate, the 416-horsepower, single-gear Tesla leaps quickly to 65 mph and, uh, beyond within seconds and only a slight touch of the accelerator.

The large and heavy battery that powers the vehicle is set low, helping the sedan to hug the road on turns.

The dashboard is striking for its absence of knobs, buttons and gizmos that some carmakers love to cram into their new models but often leave owners wondering what they all do.

An imposing 17-inch touchscreen mounted mid-dashboard offers rich content and mobile connectivity.

Unlike many other electric models, the sedan also boasts a boatload of trunk space.

A choice of lithium-ion batteries enables travel between charges of up to 200 or 300 miles. Recharging in the home garage can occur via a standard 110-volt or more quickly with a 240-volt outlet. Tesla also sells higher-power products for quicker recharging.

If the Tesla is such a magnificent ride, will I rush out to buy one?

No. At a base price of nearly $70,000 and upgrades topping $100,000, it's way too expensive for my budget. But consumers who typically consider high-end BMW, Mercedes, Lexus and other such luxury vehicles — especially those keen on zero emissions and eager to sever their ties to increasingly pricey gas stations — will certainly want to get behind the wheel of a Tesla to see what the (lack of) noise is all about.

I'm hoping, of course, that this is just the beginning of a new car company that will continue to improve its battery technology, expand its public network of charging stations and lower its cost to make Tesla models more for the middle class.

The good news is Tesla's early success quickly caught the attention of GM. The company now says it's working on longer-lasting batteries to take on the upstart electric carmaker.

There's nothing like the smell of fresh competition in the morning.

Contact Robert Trigaux at trigaux@tampabay.com.

Five things you did not know about Tesla

5 The director of Iron Man was inspired to base the movie character's genius billionaire character Tony Stark (played by Robert Downey Jr.) on billionaire and technology innovator Elon Musk, a co-founder of Tesla.

4 Publicly traded since 2010, Tesla Motors trails GM in market value, $22 billion to $52 billion. But after first introducing its Roadster, Tesla is now pushing its Model S sedan, mostly in the United States, and has been around little more than a decade. Tesla already is worth more than Fiat (which controls Chrysler). Daimler and Toyota are investors in Tesla.

3 George Blankenship, who designed Apple stores, is helping design Tesla centers. A new center in east Tampa is being expanded as Tesla starts to focus on selling its electric vehicles in Central Florida. There are no traditional dealerships with rows of cars for sale. Interested customers can schedule a test drive, and buyers can then custom-order their car.

2 Tesla has more than 13,000 of its vehicles on the road, ahead of Back to the Future-famed Delorean (which built 9,000 cars), Bricklin (2,850), and Tucker (only 51) among better-known auto startups.

1 The Tesla uses an alternating current (AC) motor descended from a design from American inventor Nikola Tesla.

Source: Tesla, Times research

About the Tesla Model S .

Consumer Reports this summer gave the Model S the highest score in its ratings: 99 out of 100. That is far ahead of such direct competitors as the gas-powered Porsche Panamera (84) and the Fisker Karma plug-in hybrid (57).

• The Model S received a highest five-star rating for front, side impact, rollover and pole penetration from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, making it one of the highest rated vehicles for safety.

• The electric powertrain in the 85-kilowatt-hour version allows the Model S to accelerate from 0 to 60 in 4.2 seconds, faster than most other cars.

• With the car-shaped fob in your pocket or purse, a tap of the brake pedal brings the Model S to life. There's no need to insert a key or press a button.

• The Model S comes with a choice of lithium ion batteries: a 60-kilowatt-hour one that offers close to 200 miles between charges and a heftier 85-kilowatt-hour battery that extends the car's distance closer to 300 miles. Mileage depends on how the vehicle is driven.

• The base price of the Model S is just under $70,000, though upgrades and extras, including a third row of two seats facing the back, can push the price over $100,000. A $7,500 federal tax credit to encourage the purchase of no-emission electric vehicles is not included in these prices.

• Tesla estimates the cost to run its electric engine is roughly a fifth of the cost of using a gas-powered car, based on a gas price of $3.80 a gallon and a national electricity average price of 11 cents per kilowatt hour.

Tesla ups the ante, makes electric cars more mainstream (w/video) 09/20/13 [Last modified: Thursday, October 3, 2013 9:09am]

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