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03.26.2013
Review> Tesla's Trance
Craig Hodgetts takes a ride in Tesla Motors' Model S electric car.
The Model S comes in four battery options, claiming ranges between 160 and 300 miles.
Courtesy Tesla

Tesla Model S Four-Door Sedan
Base price: $52,400
teslamotors.com

It hit me on Sunset Boulevard. I was inching past Chateau Marmont in a traffic gulag of indeterminate length, watching my reserves dwindle and my coolant nearly boil when someone, some thing coughed. Politely. A well-bred cough that repeated each time we lurched forward. My window was down, and beside me was the bleached flank of a long white BMW. An immaculate bimmer. And it was coughing! There! It did it again!

I realized that the cough came from one of those exotic high tech engine re-start gizmos that help save the planet, a teaspoon of petrol at a time. I counted—yep, that’s getting on to maybe a quarter of a cup. And I thought of the hundreds of bits of metal rubbing around inside the admirably complex engine, and the transistors and capacitors and circuit boards and levers and knobs and belts and fans that were ever so admirably acting in concert to produce that admittedly polite little cough, and I thought, “That’s it.” That’s the sound of the post-machine age. It’s the sound of Zeno warming up his paradoxes. It’s the death rattle of the contraption.

 
The electric powertrain is simple with a minimum of parts.
 

Because, with the arrival of the Tesla, the 100-year reign of the internal combustion engine finally has a worthy challenger: one capable of dethroning the old guzzler and beginning a new era. Not simply the vehicle, but the entire infrastructure. It’s all-electric, no compromises. The design upends traditional automotive principles yet holds on to, even expands, the mystique of driving.

Tesla’s visionary leader, Elon Musk, is not a traditional car guy. Not a guy one could picture with a wrench in one hand, a nut in his mouth, and the other hand probing the lower extremities of an oil sump. He’s not that kind of guy. But, hey! Even car guys aren’t really car guys any longer. Real car guys actually enjoy balancing old Dell’Ortos, or tracking down a suspicious leak. They’re made for it! If it weren’t for all the clattering chaos of valve trains they might reckon they’d not gotten their money’s worth. Musk’s ideas, on the other hand, seem to have materialized out of a cloud. The car (I drove the Model S four-door sedan) is so nimble, so responsive, so telepathic, that it sometimes seems guided by thought alone.

So what is it that makes the Tesla so different? For starters, look in the scrap heap. No muffler. No carburetor(s). No intake. No gearbox. Throw away the differential, the drive shaft, the ignition coil, the starter motor. And while you’re at it, deep-six the valves, the cams, the crank, and the pistons. Oh, and don’t forget the gasoline tank, the oil pan, and the filters and fillers. Plus the radiator (always liked them—beautiful!) and the hoses and clamps. Now, what have you got left? Four wheels and a clean sheet of paper.

 

Add a DC electric motor and a battery and you have what Nicolai Tesla (the original!) had envisioned in the early 20th century, when the battle between the internal combustion engine and the electric motor first began. The batteries of the time simply weren’t up to the challenge, and the gasoline engine won out. It wasn’t until cell phones and laptops fanned the development of lightweight, very powerful batteries that carmakers were able to get enough electricity for a long enough time to reliably power an automobile.

Do the math. The controversial “extra cost” of a huge 300-mile-plus battery reserve has been, in essence, bartered for all the superfluous mechanical devices that have been scrapped. And with them go regular maintenance, tune-ups, wear and tear, oily deposits, and topping-up. A quick review would indicate that the current refinement of the internal combustion engine consists primarily of adding gadget after gadget to optimize the performance of multiple subsystems, hoping against hope to advance efficiency by sometimes infinitesimally small increments, often at the cost of diminishing reliability and thereby increasing complexity to unsustainable levels.

 

The brilliance of the Tesla’s design is a stupefying simplicity in which nearly every part plays multiple roles. The battery pack, for instance, is an integral part of a stressed skin structural platform. Those surprisingly compact jumbo coffee cans next to the wheels? They’re amped-up motors—350-horse-power total—that can take the performance model Tesla from 0 to 60 in less than five seconds. Add a few cables (big ones), a black box or two, and that’s it.

Well…there’s the matter of creature comforts. Sublime. Not quite the Tron vibe one would expect from an all-electric. Leave that to the new BMW 3i. It’s more old streamliner. Moderne. A Norman Bel Geddes sort of fuselage with femme overtones. Sleek flush door handles that pulse out to reluctantly offer something for the hand, but it is not the sort of car for the voluptuary. The thrills it gives aren’t the analog sort. But they are thrills, nevertheless.

The silence of a glider. Poise of a top. Effortless vault of a cat. The Tesla seems unflappable even when pressed really hard, coddling your hopelessly animal flesh in a nearly gadget-free, sleek and refined interior with a minimum of hardware. Remarkably, the designers have not lifted a finger to protest the absence of the knobs and buttons that festoon even the most modest auto interior. They have simply, thankfully, let it be.

Craig Hodgetts

Craig Hodgetts is a Principal at Hodgetts + Fung in Culver City, California.