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New York Auto Show – Thoughts and Judgements (Oh So Much Judgement)

The grueling two days making up the New York Auto Show press preview have finally come to a close (so many free cappuccinos…), so it’s time to reflect on just what happened. Overall, it was a pretty average show, but my gut seems to indicate the overall event was actually one of the more exciting, involving shows of late. Maybe it’s because of the infinitesimal indications that the economy is starting to climb out of the pit so large, Gerard Butler uses it for overly dramatic drop-kickings. Or maybe it was just the free beer.

Let’s talk press conferences. There were a few notable stunts and oddities this year. Mercedes-Benz chose the American 2010 Olympic gold medalist bobsled team to drive out their new, mildly updated R-class. Sadly, this was the first I’d heard of the U.S. victory. I just assumed the Jamaicans always won.

"If they make one Cool Runnings joke, we're getting back in and driving away."

Infiniti put on a brief Cirque du Soleil show before yanking the sheet off their new truck-based QX56 sport-ute. At first, I thought it was just some CDS-style dancers, but, nope, turns out Infiniti actually pulled some real performers from the famed Canadian dance-circus. All they had to do was pay a shitton of money and become the official vehicle of Cirque du Soleil, as both the dancers and the car company represent “inspired performance.” (I couldn’t make that up.) I don’t know about anyone else, but the whole thing gave me a wicked acid flashback.

Scion unveiled their new iQ and tC coupes in what can best be described as a rave setting, if most raves featured a thirty-foot tall mesh projection screen with a car behind it and house music imploring the listener to “jam it in your hole” over and over again. (Then again, maybe raves do these days. I haven’t been in a while.)

Roger Sterling takes a minute from banging his secretary to introduce the new Scions.

Unsurprisingly for anyone who’s seen one of their “cheeky” ads, Mini took full advantage of the date of their press conference to play an April Fools Day prank on the audience; touting their square, cloaked concept as a concept called the “Mini Excel,” the sheet was ripped off to reveal a large SUV-shaped plywood box with “April Fools” written on the sides. Then several roadies (Minies?) converged on the stage, each grabbing a piece of the box and removing it to reveal the Mini Countryman underneath. Incidentally, Mini’s spokesperson was the only one of the days not wearing a collared shirt; beneath his suit coat was a black T-shirt with MINI written in white print. However, his closed jacket concealed about half the word, so I spent most of the show thinking he was just a big Nine Inch Nails fan.

Of course, at any event involving a large group of competitors, there will be winners and losers. In many cases, determining which is which is pretty easy; in the event of an auto show, it’s entirely subjective. Which means it’s perfect for this site. Presenting the 2010 New York Auto Show Winners and Losers!

Winner: Hyundai. Five years ago, the idea of a Hyundai competing against Mercedes-Benz would have been much, much funnier than anything Dane Cook had ever performed. But unlike Cook, Hyundai has spent the last few years improving themselves. The Genesis sedan introduced the world to the concept of a luxury Hyundai – and the new Equus sedan sets that idea in stone.

Offering quality nearly even with Mercedes, BMW and Lexus, the Equus sets out to fight the luxury brands’ top-level sedans at a much lower price point. Fun-to-drive isn’t really the game here – leave that to the Panamera – but for those looking for a relaxed, brisk full-sized luxury sedan with oodles of comfort (and yes, an oodle is the basic unit of comfort), this Hyundai will probably be a perfect fit. It’ll probably poach Lexus LS sales like an ivory hunter with a Holland & Holland .600. Starting between $50,ooo and $60,000, and with features its competitors either charge heavily for (reclining rear right-side seat, rear fridge) or don’t offer at all (nose-mounted camera for seeing around corners, standard iPad in lie of a paper owner’s manual), the Equus will almost certainly clean up the lower end of this market.

You know how Hyundai is serious about this car? Their traditional “H” doesn’t appear on it. Instead, buyers get an abstract Y-shaped logo that looks like a weird-but-I’ve-seen-weirder sex toy.

Recline function, yes. Legroom to use it, no.

Loser: Dodge/Chrysler. Unable to muster up the energy for a press conference, the closest thing the company managed to excitement were a pair of tiny Fiat 500s from their new parent company, along with a duo of identical twins to show them off.

Otherwise, the whole display was pretty flaccid. (Yes, folks, that’s a dick joke.) Chrysler’s business plan these days seems to consist of trying to sell two-tone special editions of the 300, while Dodge is relegated to selling musclecars to the Provincetown set.

Come on, Chrysler! You used to make such great concept cars. Even had a good stretch of production models there, with the PT Cruiser and the 300. This is just sad. If Hyundai can throw two separate press conferences, you can summon up five minutes to show off something. Subaru threw a new wing on the STI and called it a day – can’t you do that to the Viper?

The model budget doesn't seem to have taken much of a hit.

Winner: BMW. Pulling the sheets off five models at the show is a pretty good way to get on this list. (Not four, Kia. Five.) Consistently building some of the most fun-to-drive cars on the road helps, too. Granted, three of the reveals were just tweaks, but if loading a 3-series with 20 extra horses and a seven-speed DSG is what ladies call “freshening up,” I understand why they do it so often and it takes so long. Same goes for the mods to the Z4 and X5. Improvements on the 7-series – like the road-going ICE train called the B7 Alpina, now brilliantly available with xDrive AWD, and the ActiveHybrid 7 capable of going 0-60 in 4.7 seconds while still allowing you to be incredibly smug – are more than appreciated as well.

Who wants to race to Alaska?

But the new 5-series could be my new “realistic” dream car. Especially in 550i form, equipped with the company’s magical 4.4 liter twin turbo V8 cranking out 400 horses – an engine capable of moving the 5200-lb X6 from 0 to 60 in 5 seconds flat – and the available six-speed manual! (Though living in the city, I might just test-drive that eight-speed automatic. Though I’d feel like a poseur every day if I bought one.) The new 5 is handsome (much more so in person than in pictures), exceedingly comfortable, and quite big inside – big enough I could fit quite comfortably in the back seat, even with my 36″ inseam. (And I’ll just say it – comfier back seat than the new Bentley Mulsanne. No one else will say it, ’cause they don’t want to get booted off the Bentley gravy train, but I speak the truth!) Hell, the trunk is huge, too. I’ll take mine in Deep Sea Blue, please.

Winner: Cadillac. They surprised all of us with a CTS-V Sport Wagon, going on sale this fall by order only. I just need a nice juicy raise by Christmas.

Loser: Toyota/Lexus. Apparently shamed by the whole “AAAAAAUUUUUUGGGGHHHH!!!” problem (also known as JESUSFUCKINGCHRISTTHECARWON’TSTOP-gate), Toyota and its luxury brand were silent for the whole show. No apologies, no on-stage seppuku, no carefully choreographed bawling. Which was unfortunate, because at the very least, Lexus had a couple models worth mentioning. The LFA supercar made its New York debut in a matte-black shade that suggests Lexus is courting Bruce Wayne and the rest of the billionaire vigilante market. The CT 200h hybrid compact showed up for the first time too, complete with an ad for an interactive BMWFilm-like promo featuring a “Driver” played by the Boondock Saint Who Isn’t Young Indiana Jones. But no one told us anything about it.

Winner: The Lotus Elise. Because I discovered, while it takes about 30 seconds of gymnastics, I can actually fit inside it. Even with the hard top on.

Loser: The Subaru WRX STI. First, Subaru bumped up the power of the regular, cheaper WRX so it actually became quicker than the big-ticket STI. Now, the company has outfitted the WRX with a new, tough-guy look rendering it all but identical to the STI. Granted, four-door STIs (a new model, by the way) receive an Airbus-grade wing on the rear spoiler, but how long ’til some dude in an Ed Hardy T-shirt sticks one on his WRX?

While fun to drive, the WRX STI can result in other people correctly assuming you're a douchebag.

Winner: The backseat of the Rolls-Royce Ghost. It’s like sitting on a cloud made of dead cattle. (Wait, that came out wrong.)

"Would you like to see my Rolls-Royce?" is ranked #6 on the list of Top 10 Pick-Up Lines.

Loser: the asshole cameraman who spent a good five solid minutes filming the back seat of the Hyundai Equus through its open door, preventing the rest of us from sitting in it. Then, when I asked him if he was going to be much longer, simply snarked, “Yes.” By far, biggest loser of the show.

We’ll have more photos – and probably some snarky remarks of our own to go with them – coming soon! So stay tuned.

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GM and Ford really, really want you to drive their cars

Here’s a new one: according to Business Week, GM and Ford are offering NYIAS visitors $50 gift cards if they test-drive one of their cars at the dealership.

Now, some of you may have heard about the auto show presenters being heckled by passers-by at this year’s show. But this just seems like Ford and GM are asking people to make fun of their employees. “Hey lady, my taxes paid for that gift card!”

You know what would be great? If people bartered with them for more money. “Pal, I ain’t getting behind the wheel of your damn Focus for less than $100. Or lemme take home the Cobra logo on that Shelby GT500.”

And what about Chrysler? Are they gonna just claim the high ground? “We don’t pay people to drive our cars. We just plead with them. We’re not whores – we’re beggars.” Or will they offer more, setting off a price war of gift cards between the Big 3? “Come on down to Sheffield Chevrolet, where we give you a $15,000 gift card with any test drive!”

Anyway, if you’re planning on hitting up the auto show before it closes, be sure to ask about the promotion and snag your card. GM’s cards are only good at restaurants.com, while Ford takes the classy road and lets you use your anywhere you want.

(You can read the Business Week story here; find the nearest Ford dealership here, or the nearest GM dealer here.)

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2009 New York International Auto Show – Day One Unfiltered

We’ll have a comprehensive piece in a few days summarizing and analyzing the 2009 NYIAS, but in the meantime, content yourself with our raw notes from the Javits floor. We’re goin’ gonzo!

Mercedes-Benz, 9:30 a.m. Little sign of the recession here. Look, a $545,000 Mercedes-Benz SLR 722 convertible! A $300,000 SL65 Black Series on a goddamn pedestal! Thankfully, the espresso bar is still there. Also, a live jazz band stage-side. The pianist’s playing a Steinway. Heh. Pianist.

Mercedes always has the best countdowns – giant chrome numbers ticking off on the screen above the stage, flying by to a bombastic orchestral soundtrack via tachycardia-inducing subwoofers.

And here we go! The theme: “Road To The Future.” Is it in the sky?

And the first new car is…the ML450 Hybrid SUV. Their first full hybrid – Prius style! Developed exclusively for the U.S. and Canada. We’re special. Hmm, 335 horsepower, 381 lb/ft, and 21 city/24 highway. This actually doesn’t sound so bad.

Also an updated GL-class. And the new E-class!

Ooh, here’s Grammy-winning jazz singer Dianne Reeves to sing a new song “dedicated to the launch of the new E-class!” What a good use of cash reserves in these lean times – a famous vocalist! What, they couldn’t get Billy Joel?

"Better than sex! Better than drugs! Better than ice cream!"

Dianne's will have a Grammy on the hood in place of the three-pointed star.

“Better than anything except being in love,” goes the song. So…we’re not going to fall in love with this car?

E320 Bluetec diesel makes 23 city/32 highway, along with 210 hp and 400 lb/ft of torque. Sweet. Why can’t Ford put an engine like this in an F-150?

The E-class coupe is “the most aerodynamic production car in the world.” Seems random.

And here comes the hairy nutsack – the E63 AMG! Unveiled to clashing guitars, no less! Kick-ass! 518 horsepower, 465 lb/ft! And a staggering 12 percent improvement in fuel economy! Holy shit! Call the president – the auto crisis is over!

Mercedes-Benz's giant balls

Mercedes-Benz's giant balls

Chrysler, 10:00 a.m: Here comes jolly hunchback and Chrysler vice chairman Jim Press. He’s driving out in a Fiat 500! That’s like half a step away from out-and-out blowing Obama’s automotive taskforce!

Okay, Press has spent about five minutes talking about how wonderful a “marriage” with Fiat would be. This is fuckin’ trippy. The official spokesman of Chrysler – CHRYSLER! – is admitting his company is so screwed, they’re happily accepting a forced marriage…to FIAT. The mighty have gone subterranean.

But their first electric car will be out by 2010! Yay! Sunshine and puppies!

Finally – the new Jeep Grand Cherokee bucks onto the stage. It bounced up the steps on the edge of the platform. That was pretty cool.

And it’s surprisingly good looking! Seriously, wow! I’m impressed! It’s almost…sexy. (Warning: maybe NSFW, definitely emotionally scarring.)

Sexy Jeeps? Please, God, let's keep it from going this far.

Sexy Jeeps? Please, God, let's keep this from going too far.

A 146 percent increase in body stiffness over the old model, which was apparently made entirely out of duct tape.

Land Rover, 10:30 a.m.: Three models hidden under sheets, then again hidden behind giant LCD screens. And here goes another fancy countdown – ooh, numbers plunging into water! Kinda makes me have to pee.

More generic-brand rock music, another video montage…and here they are! Three all-new – wait, those cars look exactly the same as the old models.

Apparently the LR3 has now been replaced by the LR4, which looks pretty much identical. Quick note to Land Rover – if automotive journalists can’t tell it’s an all-new model, you might want to try something a little more revolutionary. Like, say, curves.

The LR3. Er, the LR4. Oh hell, why can't we still call it the Discovery?

The LR3. Er, the LR4. Oh hell, why can't we still call it the Discovery?

Ooh, they’re preparing a compact Range Rover “cross coupe!” I wonder if it will be anything like…

Acura, 11:00 a.m.: …the new ZDX crossover! Or four-door coupe, or sports-activity coupe, or elevated sports sedan, or whatever they’re calling this niche this week. True fact: they change the category’s name every time Glenn Beck cries.

When you leave the car idling for more than a minute, those lights pulse like a Mac.

When you leave the car idling for more than a minute, those lights pulse like a Mac.

Acura’s Jeff Conrad claims it’s “an entirely new category of luxury vehicle.” Except for the BMW X6. Or the Infiniti FX. Yeah, nice try.

Two models (the blonde on the right is hotter, just so you know) peel off the cover, to reveal…THE IRON MAN MARK 2!

Oh, no, it’s the ZDX. It’s just all burnished metallic with glowing blue concept-car headlights. Damn. I was really excited to see it fly through the roof.

Man, Iron Man was a great movie.

Man, Iron Man was a great movie.

Very Japanese up front – headlights like the new Mazda6. Those’ll change for production. Otherwise, looks like an Acura TL nose and MDX tail grafted onto a BMW X6. Not bad, really. But I need to see it with production lamps before rendering final judgement.

It’s for “active and adventuring individuals,” they say? That’s me! Excuse me while I take take a ten-mile jog while reading up on sub-Saharan parasites for my trip to the Congo next month.

Only a V6? Oh, right – they killed their V8 engine program. Bad move, Honda. You’re gonna need that. Or chop half a ton out of the thing if you want to fight BMW and Infiniti on their turf. (Or I guess they could turbocharge it…)

Production models – all with a panoramic glass roof! – hit dealerships this fall. Gonna have to see how it drives.

General Motors, 11:30 a.m.: “Gone, Gone, Gone,” by Robert Plant and Alison Kraus, is playing in the background as we wait for the conference to start. Someone has a black sense of humor.

Three models being shown off, two of which are already out on stage, since they’ve been around the block a few times already. Pontiac G8 GXP? Seen it. Buick Lacrosse? Does the name still mean masturbation in French-speaking Quebec? Because otherwise I don’t care.

Apparently GMC is the General’s “premium truck brand.” No, Cadillac is your premium truck brand. They sell the Escalade, the Enzyte Escalade (it’s several inches longer), the Farmer’s Escalade (it has a truck bed, so it’s clearly intended for hauling manure), and the SRX mid-size sport-ute. GMC is a neglected brand that hasn’t had a proprietary model since Obama stopped using pot.

But wait – here’s the GMC Terrain! It’s a small SUV that gets 30 mpg highway and arrives this summer! And I actually fit in back! Wow! Why isn’t it a Chevy?

The GMC Terrain is made entirely of journalists.

The GMC Terrain is made entirely of journalists.

Scion, 12:05 p.m.: The whole ballroom is lit up like a techno club. If Scion reps start asking us if we “roll,” I’m not sure which answer I should give.

Today’s concept, they claim, is for today’s “urban youth” who embrace “urban culture.” Not sure if they’re talking about Gossip Girl or The Wire.

“A microsubcompact car is perfect for their progressive lifestyles.” Because the smaller the car, the thicker the pot smoke inside.

And the iQ Concept lowers itself from the ceiling. It looks like a Smart car with mutated, Sideshow Bob-like feet. It’s radioactive green. Amazingly, this looks cool.

Next week, Serena and Blair try to score rock in their iQ.

Next week, Serena and Blair try to score rock in their iQ.

Holy shit, the name of the paint color actually is “radioactive?” I thought of that in half a second. Maybe I should go into PR instead.

And it comes with a 10″ LCD screen inside that folds into the console and projects rave lighting when turned off. Does this seem, in any way shape or form, like a good idea?

Wow, up close, this thing has a serious wide stance. Like, a Senator Larry Craig wide stance.

WITH HIS HAMMER PANTS DOWN!

WITH HIS HAMMER PANTS DOWN!

Volkswagen, 12:40 p.m.: Stefan Jacoby, President of VW of America, says they don’t expect to match the gains they made in 2008. Dude, we came here to dream about shiny new cars, not get gut-punched. Why not tell us the Easter Bunny isn’t real, too?

The covers come off the new Golf and GTI – and they’re not very different. Except the Rabbit is now the Golf again.

Sweet. Can we eat now? I'm hungry.

Sweet. Can we eat now? I'm hungry.

The design director’s been talking about the car’s styling for five minutes. Fuck it – I’m going to lunch.

Lunch, 1:05 p.m.: Well, at least it’s free.

BMW, 2:00 p.m.: Seven new Bimmer models go on sale this year, and eight in 2010. How many ways can you split a Bavarian creme pie?

Ahh, the world premiere of the BMW X6M. 555 horsepower and 500 pound-feet of delicious absurdity. 0 to 60 in 4.5 seconds? Man, I can’t wait until they strap this engine into the next-generation M5.

Tim Allen says: "Arf Arf Arf!" (No? I though the 90's were coming back.)

Tim Allen says: "Arf Arf Arf!" (No? I though the 90's were coming back.)

But because cosmic scales must be balanced, BMW’s karma is evened out by introducing the X6 Active Hybrid for later this year. Any Buddhists at BMW these days?

I'm blue, abu-dee abu-dye...really? They're not back yet?

I'm blue, abu-dee abu-dye...really? They're not back yet?

Apparently 63 percent of power for their Spartanburg, S.C. plant comes from sucking methane out of a nearby landfill. The other 37 percent comes from harvesting methane farted out by the employees.

Wandering about, 2:20 p.m.: Props to Porsche and Land Rover/Jaguar for rocking the lounge setup – each one has leather couches, munchies and beverages. But LR/Jag with the win for the open bar and hors d’oeuvres. The Germans only have Coke and communal M&M bowls.

Bentley, 2:30 p.m.: Hip, James Bond-ish music blares from suspended speakers – surprisingly hip for someone proudly portraying the symbols of HM The Queen and HRH The Prince Of Wales on the wall.

Today’s launch is “one of the most important cars in our history,” they say? Well, unless you’re hiding a surprise plug-in diesel hybrid – oh, no, it’s just the Supersports you showed at Geneva. I mean, biofuel capability is nice, but is a slightly faster, sportier Continental GT really THAT important just because it runs on moonshine? I mean, outside of Brazil.

It runs on gasoline, E85, or Hennessy XO.

It runs on gasoline, E85, or Hennessy XO.

But kudos to the Bentley spokesman for going old-school and forgoing the teleprompter for a paper copy of his sheet. Well done, old chap.

Porsche, 2:55 p.m.: Porsche unveils the newest version of the 911 GT3. That’s all. It’s light, it’s fast, it makes more power than any naturally aspirated six-cylinder does. I want one.

I think that's a good image to leave you with.

I think that's a good image to leave you with.

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Preview – Tesla Model S

If people could invest in automotive powertrains, the handful of people out there with electric car stocks would be seeing those very-long-term investments finally begin to pay off. Back in the early years of the 20th century, electric motors were plenty popular among the nascent automobile industry; of course, so was steam power.

Tesla Model S

But while the days of water-vapor driven cars cruising down Main Street are as defunct as sock hops and Molly Ringwald’s career, the electric car is undergoing something of a renaissance. Between last year’s hair-tearing increase in gas prices and the sudden awareness of global warming as more than a conspiracy theory, people are starting to reconsider the benefits of electric cars.

Some of this interest, unsurprisingly, has come from the world’s big automotive manufacturers – for example, GM’s Volt and Chrysler’s ENVI family, such as the 200C sedan. However, other ventures have been put forward by companies you’ve never heard of – Fisker’s Karma sedan, for example.

Fisker Karma

Fisker Karma

But Tesla – the manufacturer of today’s Preview subject – sets itself apart by being the first to put boots on the ground – or rather, tires on the pavement. While Fisker, Chevrolet, Chrysler and a slew of other manufacturers large and small have been touting upcoming models, Tesla has been selling its loosely-Lotus Elise-based roadster since last year. Leonardo DiCaprio, George Clooney, and Cameron Diaz are among the greenies who’ve unloaded around 100 grand to say goodbye to gas forever!

Tesla Roadster

Tesla Roadster

Well, only if they’re planning on driving less than 220 miles, because then the batteries run out of juice and you have to spend seven or eight hours recharging. (You can get a higher-ampere home charging station that’ll top off your battery with electrons in about three and a half hours, but plugging into a regular old outlet means a full night, more or less.) And only if you’re planning on carrying one other person, since it’s a two-seater. And only if you don’t need a whole lot of luggage – hey, it IS based on a Lotus Elise.

But the good folks at Tesla Motors (named after Serbian inventor and alternating current enthusiast Nikolai Tesla, whose last impact on the zeitgeist was when David Bowie portrayed him as a Hugh Jackman-duplicating scientist in The Prestige) are no fools; while a sexy convertible may draw in attention (and venture capital bucks), to take the company to the next level of profitability, they needed something more practical.

Hence, the Model S. A mid-sized luxury sedan designed and priced to take on the BMW 5-series, the Mercedes-Benz S-class, and the Jaguar XF, Tesla’s new model promises gasoline-car range and performance, greater seating capacity and superior versatility – all for less than the competition, once fuel costs are rolled into the equation.

3388610604_9df7ac2587_b

As John Travolta noted in Pulp Fiction, “That’s a bold statement.”

Let’s take a quick look at those claims. Better yet, let’s see how it really stacks up against the competition. For argument’s sake, let’s weight it against the standard 2009 Jaguar XF sedan – among the newest of the mid-sized luxury sedan class, and already acclaimed as a class-leader by quite a few factions in the motoring press.

Jaguar XF

Jaguar XF

Range: Tesla claims the Model S achieves a 300-mile range with its optional high-capacity battery; regular models can roam a mere 160-miles before seeking sweet, sweet current. The naturally aspirated 4.2 liter V8 in the Jag has an 18.4 gallon fuel tank, and is rated at 16 mpg city/24 mpg highway. So one tank of gas in the XF will get you somewhere between 294 and 460 miles; figure an average range of about 375 miles. Plus, fueling up the Jaguar only take about five minutes. Advantage: Jaguar

Performance: Tesla isn’t mentioning horsepower figures yet, but claims the Model S will do the 0-60 sprint in 5.6 seconds, the quarter-mile in 14 flat, and tops out at 120 mph. The XF, by Jaguar’s numbers, does 0-60 in 6.2 seconds, with the party ending at 121 mph. Advantage: Tesla

Practicality: The Jaguar, while inordinately pretty, is a fairly normal mid-sized sedan in terms of packaging. Four adults will fit in comfort, five if the three people in the back seats would help the others move out of their apartments. 17.7 cubic feet of packing peanuts will fit in the trunk. The Tesla, on the other hand, claims 7-passenger capability – or rather, 5+2 capability, since the two seats in the way back are about as suitable for adults as those in the back of a Porsche 911. Still, it’s a handy feature to have, especially given the tendency of most people to buy heavy, gas-slurping SUVs when they have to transport more than three kids. Due to the low-lying nature of the powertrain, there’s a second trunk up front as well, a la Porsche Boxster. Advantage: Tesla

Price: The XF starts at $49,975. The Tesla starts out a bit higher – $57,400 – but should be eligible for a $7500 federal tax credit, lining it up nicely with the Jaguar. Of course, that’s without the extended-range battery, so expect any saving from that tax credit to vaporize pretty quickly if you foresee your life taking you more than 80 miles from your house. (The company claims you can also swap the battery in 5 minutes for a fresh one, but doesn’t say how easy this might be or how much a spare battery costs.)

But the Model S does have a couple neat features the Jaguar lacks – a 17″ touch screen on the console (yikes!), along with claimed 3G wireless capability, which I simply don’t understand. Is there a cell phone tower built into the car? A panoramic sunroof, xenon headlights, smart-key technology, and a few other goodies will either be standard or optional – the press release isn’t clear. You should probably expect to pay a few grand more than a comparably-equipped XF if you want that extra range.

3388569178_defd1a02ea_b

The Tesla’s big cost advantage, however, should come not at the initial check-writing phase, but as the years trickle by. Depending on how much you’re paying your electric company, filling the extended range 70-kilowatt battery might cost less than $10, which certainly beats the hell out of the $36.80 it’ll take to fill up the XF at $2 a gallon. Even if your electric company decides to be a pain and it costs you $20 per full charge, you’ll still save $315 or so for every 10,000 miles you drive. Tesla predicts the Roadster’s battery should last about 7 years or 100,000 miles; if the Model S follows a similar price structure, so long as the battery costs less than $3150, you’ll save money by going green. (Tesla currently quotes a jaw-dropping $36,000 fee for battery replacement on the Roadster; hopefully they can knock that down a few dozen percent for the sedan.)

(However, in the ethical spirit of journalism, I have to remind you that the Tesla’s numbers will vary greatly depending on how much your electric company charges. If you’re only paying $7 per 300 miles, you’ll save $748 per 10K over the Jag, and Tesla can charge $7479 for your new battery while still claiming you save money.)

So value-wise, I’m gonna have to go Advantage: Jaguar. While going electric saves money from day-to-day, the battery replacement fee probably negates it. And (hopefully) the engine on the Jag will last more than 100,000 miles.

Of course, all of this is still rather academic, as the Model S won’t be plugging into consumers’ garages until the summer of 2011 or so. Given the billions of dollars being sunk into lithium-ion batteries for cars, the price should come down quite a bit over the next few years – and by 2016, when the first wave of Model S’s starts rolling over that 100K mile mark, the batteries might well cost a tenth what they do today.

So in the end, is the Model S a real car, or simply a curiosity? Well, it certainly plays the part of real car well enough. Until people from outside the company can test it out, we won’t know for sure, but if they can live up to their claims, it will probably hold its own well with its gasoline-powered competitors.

But its major flaw lies in the time it takes to power up. One of the things that makes internal combustion engines so wonderful is the miniscule amount of time it takes to refuel – a car or truck can drive for hundreds of hours straight, so long as fuel is put into the tank very now and again (although you really should turn it off while filling up, folks). As long as you have to stop for three to eight hours every 300 miles or so, pure electric vehicles will have difficulty catching on as a family’s “first” car.

Chrysler 200C concept

Chrysler 200C concept

So what’s the solution? Well, it’s the one seen under the hoods of the Fisker Karma, the Chevy Volt, and Chrysler’s ENVI vehicles – hook up a small gasoline engine as a range-extending generator for the batteries. The “plug-in series hybrids” being touted by these companies will run about 40 miles on plug-in electric power, then several hundred more as the engine recharges the battery – just like plugging your laptop into a gasoline generator. Using the gas engine as a generator means greater fuel efficiency – somewhere between 50 and 150 mpg for a car like the Volt – and for shorter trips, no gasoline will be used at all.

Chevrolet Volt

Chevrolet Volt

That’s not to say pure electric cars don’t have a place or a future. If we can figure out how to charge the batteries in five minutes instead of three hours – maybe a nationwide network of high-amp stations to replace today’s gas stations – electric cars might be all we drive, fifty years from now. And they make sense today for most day-to-day travel people take. But as long as Americans have a love for the open road and a desire to follow it day and night, pure electric cars like the Tesla will simply have to find a place as very capable bedfellows in a two-car garage.

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