When the auto industry was in its infancy, it looked for a while as if electric cars might play a starring role. 

Although many early automakers worked with the internal combustion engine, it had some serious drawbacks. It was noisy and dirty, it wasn’t particularly reliable, and worst of all, it had to be hand-cranked to start. This required both muscle power and quick reflexes, because if the engine misfired, the crank could spin and break the operator’s arm. 

Electric cars, on the other hand, were silent, relatively dependable, and required the driver to just push a button or pull a lever to start them. Range was an issue, but for many people, the ease of starting them was far more important than how far they could go. 

Cadillac effectively ended any possibility of mass-produced electric cars when it introduced the self-starter for gasoline engines in 1912.

At the first auto show in New York in 1900, the majority of cars on display were electric, followed by steam, and then by gasoline. At the 1924 show, every single model used gas.

Fast-forward to today. Electric cars are back in the spotlight as consumers worry about gas prices and environmental issues. Most of these electrics are compact vehicles, such as the Nissan Leaf or Mitsubishi i-MiEV.

And then there’s Tesla.

This California-based electric car company was founded in 2003, and in 2008 released its first effort, the Tesla Roadster. Some 2,300 of them were sold before the model was discontinued last year. The company’s newest offering is the Tesla Model S, which will go on sale in late fall of 2012.

While it wasn’t just a Lotus Elise with an electric powertrain, the Roadster shared components with that sports car. The Model S, built from the ground up as an electric vehicle, is almost entirely Tesla, save for steering column stalks borrowed from Mercedes-Benz.

The new sedan is built in California at the old GM-Toyota joint venture NUMI plant. Toyota owns a small percentage of Tesla, but while Tesla makes the drivetrain for the new electric Toyota RAV4, the company says nothing belonging to Toyota is inside the Model S.

HeapMedia168698

I had a chance to take a Model S for a short drive. The company will open its first Canadian store in Toronto in mid-November, in Yorkdale Mall. The Model S will be Tesla’s sole offering until 2014, when it will add the Model X, a crossover based on the Model S, and featuring available all-wheel-drive and top-hinged “Falcon Wing” doors.

The Model S will be available with three battery sizes – 40 kWh, 60 kWh, and 85 kWh – each offering progressively more power and range. The 85 kWh model will be sold as the Model S Performance, the Signature, and the Signature Performance.

So far, the 85 kWh model, the one brought to Toronto to show to the press, is the only one that has published specifications. The car puts out 326 horsepower and 325 lb-ft of torque, but of course being entirely electric, it makes that latter twist power right from zero, and it lasts right up until 5,800 rpm. The Performance model will bump that up to 416 horsepower and 443 lb-ft of torque, with that torque peaking between zero and 5,100 rpm.

All of it is housed inside a luxury sedan body that coddles you in comfort even as it’s knocking you back into your seat. My short time with it resulted in two green thumbs up, but of course this is going to remain a niche vehicle, at least for now. 
Canadian pricing hasn’t been announced, but in the U.S., the Tesla rings in at $57,400 for the small battery, $67,400 for the mid-size, and $77,400 for the base version of the 85 kWh model (all prices before any environment incentives).

HeapMedia168697

Unlike with most of the available electrics on the market, you don’t have to buy and install a separate home charging station. The technology is built into the Model S, accessed via a way-cool port that’s ringed with white LEDs and hidden behind a side marker light. If you don’t have a 220-volt outlet handy, though, you’ll need to get one wired into your garage. 

The small battery takes about four hours to recharge, the mid-range one about six hours, and the big battery needs between eight and nine hours. For an additional $1,500, you can get an upgraded connector that will cut those charging times by about half.

Each successive battery provides more range, and the published figures are approximately 255 km, 373 km, and 483 km. That’s considerably more than the 160-kilometre range that Nissan advertises for the Leaf, but then, you’re also looking at a price difference of some $19,000 to $39,000. 

The automakers nailed the basic electric motor back when cars were new, but we have yet to perfect the battery, which still makes up a major part of the cost and weight. And, of course, those range numbers are published figures. 

I’ve never gotten close to the official numbers in any of the electric cars I’ve driven, and it should be interesting to see how close Tesla’s numbers are to real-world range once these cars go into everyday service.

HeapMedia168695

The Model S’s battery is of the liquid-cooled lithium-ion variety, and it’s mounted under the floor, with a rear-mounted electric motor driving the rear wheels. The result is a low centre of gravity for better handling, a flat floor, and tons of cargo space, both under the rear hatch, and in a Porsche-style trunk under the front hood. 

There’s enough space behind the rear seat that you can add an optional rear-facing third row, suitable for children age five to ten years old, who can watch where they’ve been through that rear hatch glass. The third-row seats fold into the floor when not needed.

The car’s cool factor starts even before you get in. You tap the flush-mounted door handles, and they slide out so you can grasp them. Even then, an electric solenoid pops the doors open. Save for the four-way flashers and the glovebox door opener, there’s not a single button on the leather-wrapped dash. Instead, there’s a massive central touch screen, 17 inches tall, to handle all of the car’s functions. Stock up on Windex: halfway through the demonstration, the screen had accumulated a pretty good collection of fingerprints.

Instead of a button start, it’s a butt-start. You read that right: the Model S uses weight sensors in the driver’s seat, and as soon as you sit down, providing you have the proximity key with you, the instrument cluster and touch-screen come to life, and you’re immediately ready to drive.

Likewise, when you get out, the car shuts down. The screen provides access to the entertainment and climate functions, handles the Bluetooth duties, and also works like an iPad to bring up Internet pages.

So what’s it like to drive? I was only behind the wheel for about 15 minutes, on city streets and a quick rip up the highway, and the speed limiter was set to 130 km/h. Still, the only word I had was “wow.” Driving the Model S is spectacular. 

Even ridiculously powerful gasoline cars – and I’ve driven Lamborghinis, Porsches and Ferraris – have that split second between when you press the throttle, and the engine revs up to make its power. That doesn’t happen here. It’s just virtually instantaneous torque.

The steering is electric, but it’s as beautifully-weighted as anything from the premium German companies. The regenerative braking system helps feed a little juice back into the battery, and you can set it for a high threshold that brings down your speed rapidly when you take your foot off the throttle, or for a lower one that feels like a conventional brake. 

It’s as great to drive as just about anything else in this luxury four-door category.

It faces some challenges, of course. Its price will keep it relatively rare, as will its limited dealer network. (If you buy one, the company will deliver it to your door, and for a fee, will come to you to service it: the car constantly monitors itself, but maintenance checks on the connections and mechanicals are recommended annually.) And while it has considerable battery range, it does require a relatively lengthy charging period once it runs down.

The car is warrantied overall for four years or 80,000 km, while coverage on the battery pack is eight years for all, or 160,000 km for the small battery, 200,000 km for the mid-range, and unlimited kilometres for the large one.

HeapMedia168696

If buyers are going to balk at anything, I’m guessing it will be the car’s complete dependence on a few major items. That central screen probably won’t be cheap to replace out of warranty. And when I asked about a failsafe for those slide-out door handles if the battery fails, I was told, “The battery won’t fail.” 

I appreciate confidence in one’s product, but yes, stuff does occasionally fail – for example, the computer on which I’m writing this, brand-new two months ago, needed a major component replaced last week. It turns out the doors do have a backup system, but consumers may be cautious until the Model S has a couple of model years under its belt.

And overall, the electric vehicle industry isn’t having quite the ride it expected to have. U.S. battery company Ener1 went bankrupt, battery maker A123 is scrambling for funding to avoid closing its doors, and Azure Dynamics, which made the guts for the electric Ford Transit Connect, has filed for protection and has put its patents up for sale. Unlike in the early days, gasoline still has a stranglehold on the industry.

But at the end of my quick drive, the only thing I wanted to do was take it home for keeps. Tesla expects to bring 600 to 800 of these into Canada each year. If I win the lottery, one is definitely on my gotta-get-it list. 

Now we’ll have to see if those who already have the money will vote with their wallets too.