By Stephen Markley on May 28, 2010
With the recent news that Toyota will invest in electric-vehicle manufacturer Tesla, we thought it would be the perfect time to check out Tesla’s new Chicago dealership. Nestled in an industrial no man’s land just off the main freeway that bisects the city, the Chicago Tesla Store has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it quality. Not that Tesla sells its lone model, the Roadster, based off of red, white and blue streamers or oversized inflatable gorillas.
Starting at $109,000, the all-electric sports car is a double-niche product. It’s a lightning-quick two-seater with no gas tank — a toy for the wealthy — yet it’s also the most environmentally friendly car currently available.
“It’s a beautiful car, and it’s different than anything out there,” said Regional Sales Manager Dustin Krause. “There are a lot of people interested for a lot of different reasons, but think of how many [Porsche] 911s are out there. It’s that type of interest, but it throws the common thinking of an electric vehicle on its head.”
Krause won’t say how many Roadsters the store has sold since its grand opening in January but assures me Tesla Chicago — one of just seven Tesla stores in the country and the only Midwestern outpost — is doing just fine. Tesla spokesman Khobi Brooklyn said the automaker has sold about 1,200 Roadsters nationwide as of April.
The formal showroom is small, with three Roadsters and a display of the electric motor accounting for most of the decor. The majority of the cars they sell are custom-ordered and shipped from the manufacturer in California, said Seneca Geise, a sales adviser in the Chicago store.
Despite having a high-entry price, Roadster owners enjoy very low maintenance costs. They obviously don’t have to buy gas, and it only costs $5 to $6 to bring the car to a full charge with an EPA-rated maximum range of 245 miles. As far as maintenance, Tesla recommends a once-a-year diagnostic checkup, and if you can’t make it to the dealer you can get a house call.
The Tesla Ranger mobile service team will go anywhere in the U.S. or Canada. Owners can also upload data to a USB memory stick and send it in to have any problems diagnosed and remedied.
All of this certainly sounds great, but again, it’s a sports car that starts at $109,000 — it should sound great. When I wonder aloud if the Roadster remains a toy for people who have some money to spend and ultimately impractical given the way people are used to using their cars, Krause responds that there are plenty of places to plug in.
“Hotels and RV parks make up an unseen electric-car infrastructure,” he said. “Or anywhere you plug in a universal adaptor.”
This seems pretty optimistic, though. I’m not about to buy a Tesla Roadster anytime soon, but if I were, its limitations quickly become obvious. My 350-mile trip home to Ohio is well outside of the Roadster’s maximum range, and a stop at an RV park or hotel — as suggested — could cost me six hours using Tesla’s Universal Mobile Connector (with a maximum of 240 volts). If you can’t find access to an outlet that services industrial appliances, we’re talking more than 30 hours to recharge the car using a conventional 120-volt household outlet.
Cars.com editor Kelsey Mays interviewed Illinois Roadster owner Carl Walters in September 2009, and while heaping praise on the car, Walters noted he never strays far from home with it. He described his charging options as “very nil.” Using the more battery-sensitive Standard mode, Walters said, “My range around here is usually about 100 miles, at most, in a day.”
For people who prize any degree of flexibility, electric vehicles still have a ways to go before they reach the ease of use that car drivers have become accustomed to with dirt-cheap gasoline.
Still, that doesn’t mean the Roadster is not an impressive vehicle. Cars.com photographer Ian Merritt likens hitting the accelerator to jumping on a skateboard, and when I got behind the wheel of the Roadster Sport with Giese riding shotgun, I see what he means. Exactly the opposite of a gas engine, the Roadster’s peak torque begins at 0 rpm, and frankly the promise of zero to 60 mph in 3.7 seconds feels like a mighty quick 3.7 seconds.
Chicago’s cluttered Dan Ryan Expressway is hardly the place to enjoy this kind of get-up-and-go speed, but I’m grateful just for the sneak peek.
While I drive, I ask Giese, having come from sales at Nissan, how he feels about the debut of the all-electric Leaf later this year. “The more EVs that come on-line will only help,” he said, while also admitting that the Leaf’s 100-mile range presents a problem. “Range anxiety is going to be a tough to overcome and the key is to educate. Getting Americans used to the idea of electric vehicles is the important thing. The more that come out — the Volt, the Leaf, our Model S — they’ll all help each other.”
Perhaps this is where Tesla’s plan makes the most sense. By starting with a low-volume, high-profit vehicle like the Roadster, they stand to build their brand. Next up will be the Tesla Model S, a $50,000 sedan with a range of battery options that will top out at 300 miles and feature a 45-minute quick-charge capability. The Model S will be manufactured at Toyota’s recently closed NUMMI plant in Fremont, Calif., and Toyota will invest $50 million in Tesla common stock for the venture. The two companies will also begin collaborating on electric-vehicle development and production.
As EVs and plug-in hybrids like the Chevy Volt begin to roll out, Tesla will remain the high-end electric brand even as it begins to work down-market. The Roadster will give Tesla room to develop and refine the technology that will hopefully make electric vehicles more appealing, more practical and more desirable to a larger segment of car buyers.