If you’re driving in the greater Akron area and spy a swoopy but unfamiliar white sedan with Ohio license plates GET AMPD, feel free to take a good look.
It’s the first all-electric Tesla Motors Model S sedan in the state. The high-end, five-passenger car goes a slam-you-back-in-your-leather-seat 0 to 60 mph in a blink over four seconds and can drive as far as 300 miles before its battery pack needs to be recharged.
Oh, and it has a “frunk.” More on that later.
The Levy family — no strangers to electric cars — off Mackinaw Circle in Fairlawn recently took possession of a “Signature” series S production model, which is getting rave reviews as a groundbreaking electric car in the auto trade magazines and mainstream press. It is just the 23rd Signature sedan to come off the assembly line.
After having lived with it for more than a month, owner David Levy said the Tesla sedan has proved that all-electric cars can be everyday vehicles.
This is the third Tesla that Levy, an architect by trade and an avid car collector/hobbyist, has bought. He purchased an orange two-seat Tesla Roadster in 2009 and subsequently traded it in for a newer blue Roadster. (Yes, that means the Levys currently are a two-Tesla household in addition to owning other traditional hydrocarbon-powered vehicles.)
The Model S is California-based Tesla’s first made-in-the-USA and designed-from-the-ground-up vehicle; the much smaller Roadster was built in Europe and had Lotus sports car underpinnings. Sedan production plans were announced years ago. The Model S was just named Motor Trend’s 2013 Car of the Year — the first all-electric vehicle pick and the first unanimous pick by the judges in the prestigious award’s 64-year history.
“We had our deposit on it back in 2009,” Levy said. The wait was worth it, he said.
“It’s a full-size sedan. It’s easy to get in and out of,” Levy said. “It drives so well.”
Levy’s 4,000-pound-plus mainly aluminum car has a low center of gravity in large part because of the 85-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack underneath that takes up almost all of the space between the four wheels. The 416-horsepower electric motor sits between, and drives, the rear wheels.
The basic Model S has a list price of about $50,000. The price climbs rapidly with larger battery packs that provide longer range between chargings, bigger motors and more. The fully loaded Model S that the Levys have cost about $106,000.
“I ordered every option you can get except rear-facing seats,” David Levy said. (The two optional small, child-only rear-facing seats make the S a seven-passenger car.)
The Model S drives much like a typical gasoline-powered sedan with a high-tech, well-put-together interior. The powerful electric motor is silent. Step on the accelerator and the car immediately springs forward. You can hear birds chirping in trees as the car, with windows closed, passes by.
Levy said there’s no realistic fear of getting stuck on the road with a drained battery pack. (His wife, Robin, is the primary driver of the car.)
“We’ve got the 300-mile (battery) pack in here,” he said. (The base Tesla sedan comes with a battery pack that provides a maximum range of 160 miles.)
They’ve already tested the 300-mile range by driving from Fairlawn to south of Columbus and back, Levy said.
A huge 17-inch touchscreen monitor — more than twice the size of two iPad tablets — dominates the dashboard and helps the driver track electricity consumption and how many miles the vehicle can go before running out of juice. (The touchscreen performs multiple functions as well, including climate control, GPS navigation and opening and closing the sunroof. It can even allow for Web surfing with its 3G internet connection.)
“You watch,” Levy said. “And you’ve got cords. There are chargers all over the place.”
Smartphone apps show where the nearest place to charge the car is, he said.
“We can go to any Nissan dealership. You can go to a campground,” Levy said.
The time it takes to recharge depends on whether the car is connected to a high-power 240-volt outlet or to something smaller, including household outlets, he said. The less powerful the outlet, the longer a recharge will take. Most people charge their vehicles overnight in their garages, when electric rates are cheapest, Levy said.
Tesla has created what it calls the “Supercharger” that can fully recharge an S sedan from empty to full in an hour. The company plans to build a nationwide network of solar-powered Supercharger stations over the next couple of years, enabling relatively easy coast-to-coast travel — and people using the chargers would get the power for free.
Levy’s son Neal, also a car nut who interned and worked briefly for Tesla in 2009 and who now sells Mini Coopers in Northeast Ohio, demonstrated how the Model S monitors its electric power usage.
As Neal Levy drove, one part of the car’s dash monitor showed 249 miles as the maximum range available; another monitor showed that 196 miles was realistic given how the car was being driven. The Tesla actively monitors driving use and calculates remaining battery power and miles available, he said.
He stomped on the accelerator and the 196 mile number quickly dropped to 192 miles. By the end of the trip the monitor showed the car had about 194 miles to go before its batteries were drained.
“People have to get over that range anxiety,” David Levy said.
Tesla Motors is starting to ramp up production, spokeswoman Shanna Hendriks said. The Model S is being built at the former General Motors-Toyota joint venture NUMMI site, now renamed the Tesla Factory, in Fremont, Calif. (The company stopped making the Roadster sports car.)
The publicly traded Silicon Valley company in Palo Alto, Calif., was created in 2003 by entrepreneur Elon Musk and others and is named for physicist and inventor Nikola Tesla, an American immigrant. Musk, who turned 41 this year, also is the brains behind online payment company PayPal that eBay bought in 2002 for $1.5 billion. The same year he sold PayPal, Musk founded the California-based rocket company SpaceX whose Dragon capsule in May became the first private spacecraft to dock with and deliver a payload to the International Space Station.
As of early October, Tesla Motors company had delivered 250 sedans to customers, Hendriks said. The company expected to deliver between 2,500 and 3,000 sedans to customers in the last three months of the year, she said.
“We are looking to deliver 20,000 Model S (sedans) in 2013,” Hendriks said. “We’re hoping to finish this year producing 500 cars a week.”
Current Tesla customers tend to be early adopters of technology, she said. The S is aimed at people whose incomes allow them to buy BMW, Mercedes and Audi luxury vehicles, she said. Tesla is planning to build a smaller sedan that would compete against the likes of the BMW 3 series and plans also include an all-wheel-drive vehicle, Hendriks said.
There are no Tesla showrooms in Ohio. The nearest ones are in Chicago and on the East Coast, she said. Tesla has a program where it sends technicians to service and repair cars where the customer is, she said.
While electric vehicle technology is improving, the products are high-priced compared to conventionally powered cars and trucks and remain a niche in an industry that sells millions of new hydrocarbon-powered vehicles annually. The industry is feeling growing pains as all-electric vehicle sales badly lag goals despite billions of dollars in federal incentives and loans to manufacturers as well as $7,500 tax credits available to buyers.
The Detroit News noted recent bankruptcies in the electric vehicle industry include Michigan battery company A123 Systems Inc., which has lost $900 million since 2007.
Bloomberg News recently noted that the federal government put together its $5 billion financing and incentive package with the goal of having a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015. But since 2011 and through September this year, fewer than 50,000 all-electric vehicles have been sold in the states, just 5 percent of the goal.
A 2011 study by the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., suggested that electric vehicle sales in the United States may reach as high as 140,000 a year by 2015.
Electric cars still have their enthusiasts, backers and early adopters such as the Levys and the Tesla S.
“It drives like a normal car,” Neal Levy said. “There’s no downside. You’re not giving anything up to have an electric car.”
David Levy recalled going out to California for the official unveiling of the Model S.
Tesla called its ride and drive demonstrations to potential buyers the “Get Amped Model S Test Drive Tour,” which became the inspiration for Levy’s license plate.
Tesla demonstrated how the Model S could seat seven people inside with the two optional child seats, Levy recalled. Then onlookers heard a thumping coming from the front of the car. The hood popped up and inside the front trunk — what Tesla calls the “frunk” — the company had hid an eighth person.
“So they said, you know, we have an eight-passenger car,” Levy said.
Jim Mackinnon can be reached at 330-996-3544 or firstname.lastname@example.org