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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.

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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.

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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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Quick View – Pontiac G8

If you follow the site regularly, you may have noticed that there aren’t usually many Quick Views about American cars on the site. Well, actually, if you’re really astute, you’ll have noticed there aren’t any Quick Views for the Big Three’s products. There’s a reason for that – Ford, Chrysler and GM haven’t exactly been trying to compete heavily in the Generation Y market recently. Their business plans, for the most part, have been more along the lines of Tony Bennett’s – hang onto the people you hooked in thirty years ago.

2008 Pontiac G8 GXP

But, like the crooners of old, the American automakers are catching onto the problem of their model – sooner or later, your target audience gets too old to dance. In that case, aging brands have two choices – retire gracefully, or reinvent yourself. For aging musicians, the former is infinitely preferable – please, Mr. Bennett, no one wants to see you freestyle – but for legendary brands, rebooting the image is often just what the doctor ordered.

In the case of car companies, there’s only one way to really reinvent one’s self, and that’s with hot, new vehicles. A flashy ad campaign alone won’t cut it – you gotta have cars that people want. Detroit, to their credit, is finally starting to understand that, and the last few years have seen an influx of sweet rides that can match up to cars from pretty much anywhere on the planet. 

Among that list comes today’s contestant – the Pontiac G8. Now, before you unroll that four-foot American flag Fathead for the car’s roof, there’s a dirty little secret you should know – it’s not really American. It’s Australian. The G8 is, for the most part, identical to the Holden Commodore sedan, assembled Down Under and sent over here. While this might seem like cause for concern, fear not: this Aussie not only speaks with a convincing American accent, it kicks some serious ass – just like Hugh Jackman.

 

Hugh Jackman seen here kicking seri - shit! Wrong picture!

Hugh Jackman seen here kicking seri - shit! Wrong picture!

 

That's better.

That's better.

However, the G8 offers three different flavors, unlike Mr. Jackman, who only has two (ruggedly hairy and dramatically flamboyant). Your choice of trim level determines your engine, but don’t expect anything with less than six cylinders. Don’t look for any nancy-boy front-wheel-drive here, either; this is real Auss…er, American iron, and it only comes in rear-wheel-drive, just like Dad did it.

As you might imagine, this old-school four-door has some serious guts. Base models, packing a 265-horsepower, 3.6-liter V6, runs from 0 to 60 in 7.0 seconds, according to Car and Driver. GT trim levels haul down the blacktop courtesy of a 6.0-liter V8 that funnels 361 horses to the rear wheels – enough to reach mile-a-minute velocity in 5.3 seconds from a dead stop. Top-of-the-line  GXP models cut more than half a second off that, going from naught to 60 in 4.7 seconds while completely erasing memories of that shitty Grand Am your grandmother used to drive. All G8s come with an automatic with manual control (five gears in the base, six gears in GT and GXP); a six-speed stick (yeeeeeeaaah!!) is optional on the GXP.

But with great power comes great responsibility – in this case, a responsibility to ExxonMobil. (God, Stan Lee’s gonna shoot me for butchering that phrase.) Base G8s are EPA rated at 17 mpg city/25 mpg highway. The significantly ballsier GT, surprisingly, pulls down 15 mpg in town and 24 on the open road, very close to its wimpier brother. But physics (or Uncle Ben) finally catches up once one steps up to the GXP, which sucks gas at a rate of 13/20 city/highway.

2008 Pontiac G8 GXP

The lineup starts with the basic model, simply called G8, presumably to encourage Who’s-on-First-like confusion at Pontiac dealerships. Standard features include 18-inch wheels, electronic stability control, keyless entry and remote starter, and a 7-speaker Blaupunkt CD stereo with audio jack and control screen that looks like it should show some kind of a map but doesn’t, because apparently everyone Down Under is so badass they always know where they’re going. ABS, front-side-and-head airbags, and loads of other safety features come gratis, but you will have to pay to tan – sunroof is optional on all G8s. The base G8 starts at $28,250; check all the boxes, and that’ll go over 30 grand, but not much.

Mid-level G8 GTs are equipped pretty much like base models, with the exception of their bigger engines, a few trim pieces, and an upgraded 11-speaker Blaupunkt stereo. A Sport package is offered, unique to this model, as well. While they were first introduced a year ago, Pontiac gave into pre-inflationary nostalgia and based the GT a paper Lincoln under 30 large; today, they start at $31,775, but fear not – GM’s ever-present rebates knock a few percent of the price. (As I write this, Pontiac’s website says it’s taking $3,000 off G8s, but feel free to tack onto that all sorts of other offers, like college/graduate discounts.)

The hairy-chested G8 GXP offers even fewer differences beyond its engine – the choice of six-speed stick and standard heated leather seats are about it. Tires get bumped up to 19″, as well (both the bigger wheels and leather are options on lower models). GXPs start at $37,610 before rebates.

2008 Pontiac G8 GXP

So when the time comes to sign on the line, which one of these G8s is a Gr8 buy? (Jesus…that’s pathetic.) Well, there’s no real bad choice here. The base model is certainly tempting for some very sage reasons – other than the bigger engine, you give up little to the more expensive models, and you’ll have the satisfaction of saving money both at the pump and on the payment. The GXP, on the other hand, is just so goddamn cool it’s hard not to just suck it up and pay extra for what amounts to a four-door Corvette capable of holding its own with a manual BMW M5 (costing twice as much) in the quarter-mile. But ultimately, the Goldilocks solution is best here. The G8 GT gives up little in real-world performance to its big bro for a price that, with a few rebates, dips under $30,000. It’s a throwback to a better time – when a dollar was worth something, a family could survive in comfort on one person’s income, and America made the best damn cars in the world.

Grades: G8 base: B+, G8 GT: A, G8 GXP: A

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