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Sunday, April 7, 2013

Electric roadster Tesla has arrived in New Hampshire

If you’re going to spend $100,000 on a car, you want to have a little fun with it.

“Sometimes I open up the hood and throw my briefcase in, like I’m putting it on the engine, just to startle people,” Ryan Clark, of Pelham, said as he showed the large empty space under the hood of his 6-week-old Tesla electric sports car, one of the first three dozen or so in New Hampshire. ...

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If you’re going to spend $100,000 on a car, you want to have a little fun with it.

“Sometimes I open up the hood and throw my briefcase in, like I’m putting it on the engine, just to startle people,” Ryan Clark, of Pelham, said as he showed the large empty space under the hood of his 6-week-old Tesla electric sports car, one of the first three dozen or so in New Hampshire.

There’s a large empty space under the car’s rear hatchback, too. This is an electric vehicle, which means the engine and transmission are so small, they can be tucked underneath the flat floor, along with the battery pack, leaving more storage space than some apartments.

Awesome storage isn’t the point of the Tesla, however. The point is to have a vehicle that wows both gearheads and geeks, not to mention the driver, and helps push us further away from a fossil fuel world.

“It’s a game-changer,” said Clark, an electronics early adopter who works in technical sales, and a roadster fan who owns a Porsche. “It’s not an electric car, it’s a great car that happens to be electric.”

John Cassidy, of Bedford, had been looking at electric vehicles for a long time. After a week owning a $90,000-plus Model S Performance, he said he’s still smiling, but not because of any tree-hugger aura.

“It’s the fastest car I’ve ever driven, and I’ve driven lots of pretty cool cars,” he said. “You hit the throttle and immediately, you just go.”

Some might argue that a car that costs twice as much as a Mercedes, but can’t be confidently driven through large parts of the country because of a lack of charging stations – including New Hampshire – had darn better make you smile.

If early sales are any guide, it does. Tesla Motors can’t build the Model S sedans fast enough. Clark waited 10 months for his to be delivered. And while the numbers are insignificant by General Motors standards – almost 5,000 of the Model S have been sold – Tesla Motors claims it has begun to actually make a profit.

Car history

The sleek-looking roadster is the brainchild of entrepreneur Elon Musk, who created Tesla Motors in 2003 using the billions of dollars he made from founding PayPal.

He figured that the high cost of developing and building an electric car could better be swallowed by customers if it were part of a high-cost luxury sports car. He wasn’t the only one to think this, but so far he’s the only one to make it work. A competitor, Fisker Automotive, has almost gone bankrupt.

Tesla Motors, based in Palo Alto, Calif., is named after 19th-century physicist Nikola Tesla, a genius who helped create the modern electrical system before going off the deep end, and is run more like a Silicon Valley tech firm than a Detroit auto company. Among other things, Tesla is involved in lawsuits with auto dealers because the company sells directly to customers through showrooms – including one in the Natick (Mass.) Mall – perhaps violating auto franchise laws in many states.

Musk is also the brains behind SpaceX, the private rocket company that is the first nongovernment entity to deliver supplies to the orbiting International Space Station.

From the customer point of view, Tesla’s major accomplishment is to move electric cars from the econo-frumpy category into a sexier realm.

Other electric cars available in the Nashua area range from one step above golf carts – the Chinese-American Weego, a Smart Car knockoff – to serviceable commuter cars such as Mitsubishi’s MiEV and the market leader, Nissan Leaf.

The Tesla is something else entirely.

Its geeky side is obvious: The dashboard is dominated by what is basically a touch-screen table computer, and updates to its software show up automatically, just like they do on your smartphone. Those updates can do everything from alter the appearance of controls to change performance levels.

But the gearhead side is obvious, too. A test drive with Clark demonstrated that Musk’s decision to emphasize performance has succeeded admirably.

The Model S, like the earlier model, called Roadster, takes maximum advantage of electric motors’ big advantage over internal combustion engines: the ability to deliver maximum torque at any speed, accelerating instantly and with head-snapping force.

The zero-to-60 mph times are impressive, but they’re impressive for lots of sports cars. What’s startling is how quickly the Model S goes from 40 to 60 and, although nobody will admit it when police are around, from 60 to 100.

Less ‘range anxiety’

Just as important are its lithion-ion battery packs, which deliver a range between charges that Tesla claims is near 300 miles if you get the 85-kilowatt-hour battery at the cost of an extra $10,000. This is at least three times the realistic maximum between charges for a Leaf, and not much less than the distance between fill-ups for a standard car with lousy gas mileage.

This tackles the biggest problem of electric cars: the lack of places to charge them when not at home.

“I spend 99 percent of my time driving between here and Boston, and that’s well within the range,” Cassidy said.

“I never have range anxiety,” said Clark, describing the electric-car equivalent of fretting about driving on empty.

Still, Clark admits it’s frustrating not to be able to fill up (if that’s the right term) on the road in New Hampshire, which has almost no public electric-car charging stations other than those available at Nissan dealers.

Massachusetts is a different matter: The Bay State is subsidizing outdoor charging stations as a prod to the industry, so they’re increasingly available at restaurants and parking garages and office buildings. Some are free; some put charges on credit cards

“It’s a little frustrating that New Hampshire isn’t doing more for this infrastructure,” Clark said. “This is the future.”

The future has a ways to go, however. A salesman at Tesla Boston said the company has delivered only “30 or 40” cars to New Hampshire as of early April.

Lower operating costs

One of the advantages of electric cars is lowering operating costs. At 12 cents per kilowatt-hour, it costs Clark about $10 to charge his batteries to maximum range from zero. In a standard car getting 30 mpg, it would cost at least $35 to do the same with gasoline.

Electric engines also have many fewer moving parts than internal combustion engines: no belts, no pistons, virtually no fluids, virtually no regular maintenance aside from the tires. Service costs are likely to be much, much less.

On the other hand, the battery wears out over time and has to be replaced. A Tesla battery costs $12,000 and has an expected life of seven to 10 years, although nobody knows for sure – that cost must be factored in when calculating operating costs. Battery performance may also fade over the years, shrinking the range.

But again, that isn’t the sort of thing that drives the decision when buying a $100,000 car.

“I didn’t do it for cost savings, despite total cost of ownership,” Clark said. “I want to drive something different, and this is certainly different.”

How different?

“I’m driving in the tunnel in Boston and people are driving up next to me, rolling down the window, and asking what it is,” he said. “That’s kind of scary, actually.”

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashua
telegraph.com. Also, follow Brooks on Twitter (@Telegraph_DaveB).